Program provides entry path for women into trades.
Program provides entry path for women into trades.

The Conference Board of Canada estimates a shortage of one million workers in the high paying trades and related occupations within 20 years. As a result, employers are looking towards Alberta's Apprenticeship and Industry Training System and its Women Building Futures program to solve long-term staffing solutions. Industries relying on apprentices include construction and transportation with such short-staffed trades as rig technicians, ironworkers, plumbers, and heavy equipment technicians. The industry-driven program is designed to meet the evolving requirements of each designated trade, and maintain high industry standards.

Alberta has only 10 per cent of Canada's working-age population, yet trains more than 20 per cent of the country's apprentices. "It's in the employers best interest to hire as many apprentices as possible so that they can build up the labor force and meet their ongoing labor demands," says Tracy Larson, Alberta Employment, Immigration and Industry spokeswoman. "We have been hiring record numbers of apprentices for the past several years," notes Larson. "At the end of December, there were 67,000 apprentices in the system, that's a 45 per cent increase over the past two years."

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  • It takes up to four years to become a journeyperson. That's a 149 per cent hike in apprentices over the past decade involving all trades. For those becoming an apprentice, 80 per cent of their training is on the job, 20 per cent is in the classroom. It's up to the aspiring apprentices to find an interested employer. The first year of training "is really an important one because that's where the apprentice is trying out the job, and deciding that it's right for them," says Larson. "The employer is also evaluating that person making sure they have the aptitude for this choice." She admits the drop-out rate may be as high as 50 per cent, "but it's not really that unusual in the first year."

    Based on audited statistics, 76 per cent of apprentices complete their training and become journeypeople, says Larson, adding there are various reasons for the turnover. Someone 6-ft 2-inches tall may be uncomfortable leaning over a vehicle all day while training to be a mechanic. Also, some trades are seasonal; landscaping can't be done during winter in certain areas like Alberta. Students may move on to something else during that short lay-off period.

    The next barrier to fall may be the trades' traditional absence of opportunities for women. More than 50 per cent of Alberta's population is female but only approximately four per cent work in the trades. By increasing women's access to non-traditional jobs, the program not only solves employers' labor issues, these jobs provide economic independence for the women involved. "I think what makes our program exceptional is that we get the women students ready to work in the construction industry. We're highly successful, and employers love our grads because they have a strong work ethic. They're prepared," says Wanda Wetterberg, WBF operations manager.

    The classes are very rigorous, and also teach students the realities of the workplace, which is still predominantly a white man's world. But the WBF-trained women are up to the challenge, she maintains. Employers involved applaud the program saying the women are more stable, meet or exceed standards, are very committed and tend to have good dexterity for detail and quality. Also, wage equality for women encourages retention.

    The organization's website also claims employers consistently say WBF graduates are some of the best apprentices they have hired. Prospective female applicants must first attend an information session, followed by a three-day assessment session to determine if a career in the trades is the right fit. Participants then choose from several training streams such as the 16-week Journeywoman Start Program for preparation as an entry level apprentice. Programs which started this year include the Roadbuilding and Heavy Construction Program, an eight-week program developed in response to the roadbuilder and heavy construction industry's need for well-trained, entry-level field personnel. The Construction Boot Camp program prepares women for jobs in Alberta's construction sector.

    "We work with them to find employment, and encourage the employers to sign their apprenticeship papers," explains Wetterberg, once the women have completed their programs. Since it was incorporated in 1998, more than 250 women have been through the program, with 95 per cent graduating.

    Larson dismisses the belief that apprentices lose opportunities to foreign temporary workers. "It's not true," she says, "because that skilled tradesperson is coming in to meet jobs the apprentices aren't skilled enough yet to do."