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An untapped resource

Part of the solution to the construction industry’s labour shortage may be supporting women in the trades

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The 2010 Olympics; employment opportunities in Alberta; the exodus of baby boomers from the work force — these are just three of the factors cited when the cost of construction escalates in B.C.

On a recent Global TV newscast, it was reported that skilled workers from Jamaica have been flown in to assist with the construction of Kelowna's new five-lane floating bridge. “We searched across Canada,” said the contractor, “but we couldn’t find the labour we needed.”

Flying workers in from Jamaica is not a long-term solution to the labour crunch that B.C. is experiencing. But there is a largely untapped resource that could keep construction projects on schedule, and keep workers in the province: women.

“The percentage of women in the trades has not changed much in the last 20 years,” says Meg Herweier, a former BCIT carpentry instructor who is currently the apprentice training coordinator for the Washington Marine Group in Vancouver. Overall participation of women in the construction trades has remained at around three per cent for the last decade. “It is discouraging to find that there have not been significant strides made here,” says Herweier. “There is no reason that women cannot work in the trades in equal numbers to men.”

A recent study by Heather Mayer and Kate Braid of Simon Fraser University concluded that the number of women working in the construction trades has remained low — from 0.7 per cent in 1971, to 3.1 per cent in 2006. Retention of women in the industry is a concern: while greater numbers of women enter apprenticeship programs, few complete the four years required to get their journey ticket. A ticket leads to higher wages, greater job security, and a designation that is recognized across Canada and abroad.

There are few women working on Whistler construction projects, but the ones who have chosen to work in the industry enjoy good incomes. Annual earnings in the construction trades start at $50,000, and can climb to $250,000, according to the B.C. Construction Association. In an August Globe and Mail article profiling women working on Alberta’s construction sites, a 24-year-old woman, who left a clerical job to become an apprentice millwright and doubled her income, said: “women who don’t consider (construction) are just uninformed.”

Greater female participation in the construction trades starts with awareness and encouragement — something that doesn’t seem to be happening in the high schools, where boys have always looked at trades as an alternative to university. Lindy Monahan, project manager of the B.C. Construction Association’s Step Program for Women, says female participation in construction trades will remain low unless attitudes change, both in schools and on the home front.

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