Conestoga news

October 23, 2014 4:14 AM

Changing the face of skilled trades

When people think of professions like mechanics and welders, we all have the picture in our minds of the stereotypical tradesman, working up a sweat across his brow. Staff at Conestoga College and students like Kadie Morrissey are hoping to change that picture.

Morrissey, 18, was recently accepted into the Women in Skilled Trades program at Conestoga College’s Waterloo campus, joining 24 other women in their goal to pursue a career in construction and mechanical trades such as carpentry, welding, roofing, plumbing, masonry, or heating, refrigeration and air conditioning. Since 2001, Conestoga College has offered the 38-week WIST program to qualified students free of charge thanks to provincial funding from the Ontario Women’s Directorate, but Trades and Apprenticeship program manager Brenda Gilmore said it’s much more than that.

“It’s not just offering a tuition-free program, it’s getting people out to work in a really well-paid trade,” she said. “It’s not just about getting the skills, it’s about getting the employer at the end of the day.”

Gilmore says Conestoga College has been a leader in the province, offering Women in Trades and Technology training since 1977, and hosting events like Jill of All Trades, a day-long event to inspire young women in Grades 9-12 regarding the many opportunities that careers in trades and technology provide, with participation from 175 female students from eight local school boards.

“No one else in the province is doing that, even in the country I would think,” Gilmore said. “It was quite an exciting event.”

Conestoga College is also involved with Trades and Technology Day during International Women’s Week, and the Waterloo Region Women in Trades Association, which Gilmore said was started by two Conestoga faculty members.

“It’s not just male-dominated, we’re trying to let ladies know there are well-paid opportunities for them,” Gilmore said. “I don’t think many other colleges could say they’re doing all these things.”

Gilmore said Conestoga’s push towards encouraging women in skilled trades is part of a larger picture that projects a shortage of skilled trade workers in Canada within the next 10 years, and it’s one of the reasons why the college offers 3,000 opportunities to elementary and high school students every year through the School College Work Initiative.

“We’re trying to open their eyes to the opportunities of what is out there,” Gilmore said.

Morrissey comes to Conestoga College after graduating from Listowel District Secondary School with a Specialist High Skills Major diploma in construction. Morrissey’s plans to study an extra year of construction technology at LDSS were changed at the last minute when she inquired about the WIST program with SHSM program support lead Ken Bailey and found a spot was available. Bailey said Morrissey is a perfect successs story after all the effort that LDSS has done to promote post-secondary careers in skilled trades.

"In my mind, this is a feather in our cap," Bailey said. "We're feeling really good about this."

Marcel Van Leeuwen, Morrissey's construction teacher, said he's looking forward to seeing what she is capable of in the WIST program.

"It's neat to be able to track a student after they leave high school, because it's not always easy to do," Van Leeuwen said. "I think she has the skills to do well, based on what I've seen."

Gilmore said early exposure to skilled trades is key for students looking ahead to careers, which is why she’s so impressed with LDSS’s Tech Ed Centre and information nights for students and parents. “We have nothing but great things to say about what you folks do,” Gilmore said. “You’ve got great stuff going on in your community.”

With a couple weeks of the WIST program under her belt, Morrissey is enjoying the new opportunities being offered by Conestoga, like the plumbing and HVAC training. “I never thought to do that kind of thing because I’ve never experienced it,” Morrissey said. “I just love working with my hands, and learning new skills to move forward.”

Morrissey’s path is just one of many taken by women enrolled in the WIST program according to Conestoga event and tour coordinator Michelle Devereaux, who said women come from many different backgrounds seeking a new career in the trades.

“Everyone’s got a different story as to why they’re doing this, but at the end of the day they’re all doing it for the same reason, to get skills for themselves,” Devereaux said. The WIST program is currently funded for the next two years, with recruitment for next September’s program starting in April 2015. There’s no experience needed for the program, as each class is taught as an introduction to skilled trades.

“It’s taught in a way that they can feel comfortable picking up something,” Devereuax said. “You don’t need to have any experience, just passion.”

For more information on the Women in Skilled Trades program, visit

This story by Andrew Smith originally appeared in the Listowel Banner. Reprinted with permission.