Breaking Convention in British Columbia

Okanagan women are donning hard hats, strapping on tool belts and maneuvering their way in to some of the ‘traditionally’ male dominated’ trades!

June 17, 2019 marked a red-letter day for women in the Okanagan. That day the Women in Trades program at Okanagan College celebrated its first 1,000 students trained.

Nancy Darling, Program Administrator of the Trades and Apprenticeship Program at Okanagan College, wrote the first proposal for the program 10 years ago.

“We’ve learned a lot since we began,” Nancy says. “At first our class sizes were 16 to 20 students. We’ve learned to keep the numbers down to 12 to 14 per class to allow for more one-on-one time. It feels more like a family. Our major target group is 19 to 24. Some of these women had trouble completing high school or suffered because of unfortunate life choices. Our second group are 40 to 50 years of age. Often their challenge is that they have no certification and have been stuck in a series of entry-level jobs. Tuition fees, single parenthood, childcare, high housing costs and lack of self-confidence present barriers to both groups.”

And, I’ve been through them all,” Nancy says.

Born in Victoria, Nancy received a BA in Community Rehabilitation at the University of Calgary, then went on to work at the University before coming to Kelowna 20 years ago. “I graduated with a huge student loan debt and had to make it as a single mom, so I know what it’s like,” she says. After her first three years as Program Administrator for the Trades and Apprenticeship Program, Nancy realized women were underrepresented in the program.


To this end, the college offers two sponsorship routes funded through the Canada-British Columbia Workforce Development Agreement to help increase the number of female apprentices in BC: The Gateway to the Building Trades for Women program, which can be followed by the specialty oriented four-year Trades Foundation program. Each route allows women to gain skill, experience and ultimately a well-paid satisfying job in the trades.

The 12-week Gateway to the Building Trades for Women program, is an exploratory program offering a smorgasbord of trades for those unsure which might be right for them. It includes classroom learning with a focus on safety and best practices as well as hands on job site training in trades like carpentry, plumbing, electrical, automotive and sheet metal. The program also includes the essential soft-skills like social responsibility on the job-site, interview skills and how to create a resume package. Counseling, mentoring and tutoring in basic academics like English, Math and Physics are also provided.

Meggie Shields enrolled in the Gateway program in January 2019. After completing the program, she chose to start working directly as a sheet metal apprentice. Meggie plans to continue to work until November 2020 when she will head back to Okanagan College for the Level 1 of the four-year Sheet Metal Program. With completion of Levels 1 to 4 and apprenticeship hours, Meggie will achieve her Sheet Metal Red Seal an interprovincial standards certificate for tradespeople. “I am grateful the program exists because it is facilitating the empowerment of women and strengthening our country.” Says Meggie.

While Meggie chose to work in her trade before continuing formal training, Johanna Turangan-Grieve and Laura Penney went directly from the Gateway program to the Carpentry section of the four-year Trades Foundation program. After living for a time in Alberta and Quebec, Penticton born Johanna returned to the Okanagan in 2015. “I am a single mama of a wonderful 12-year-old son, one of my main motivators in my career and in life.”

Johanna started the Gateway program in September 2016. “That’s where I met Laura. We started our journey in carpentry together. The different avenues carpentry can take a person are almost endless. I am constantly growing and changing, and my trade accommodates that. Yes, there are challenges. Some days I go home very tired and sore. The best part is, almost everyone on site has those moments, too.”

Her pal Laura Penney is also happy with her choice to enroll directly in the Carpentry program and work toward her Red Seal. “I love to use my brain and critical thinking skills every day. I love the math. I love being able to take concepts from the classroom and apply them directly on the job.” Though she admits to suffering from a lack of confidence sometimes, she adds, “I am surrounded by people who encourage and support me and help me get over that obstacle. My dream is to work in New Zealand or Australia. I am very lucky I am obtaining certification that is recognized internationally.”

Laura added, “I would like to continue gaining experience in all the different aspects of carpentry and construction to make me more of a well-rounded tradie.”

Kelowna apprentice electrician, Kristy Goertz, started directly at the Foundation Program Level 1. “I’m happy with my choice of electrical but I sometimes wonder if I might have chosen differently if I had attended the Gateway program.

I’ve always loved working with my hands so being in trades was a no brainer for me. My dad is a carpenter, my mom his assistant, my elder brother owns a lighting company and the younger one is a jack of all trades.”

Kristy admits her biggest challenge is being a single mom of three teenagers. “Having a full-time apprenticeship job is demanding enough. Luckily, I work for my brother. He is understanding of parents who need to get off early once in a while because of a child being ill or for parent-teacher conferences.”

On the job she loves working with the guys, joking around. “They love to bug me, and I give it right back. It probably helps that I grew up with brothers. Sometimes the work is physically demanding, hauling around 50-pound rolls of wire and heavy ladders, but I love the work. Every day is different. I love to see a project through.” In two more years, Kristy hopes to have her Red Seal and a job with the City of Kelowna.

Women bring a different aspect to the job site. They listen better,” says Kristy.

Not everyone takes such a direct route. Corrinne Cormier studied First Aid at Okanagan College, then Forestry at BCIT, before arriving at her position as Administrator of SilverStar Mountain Resort Maintenance Department. Corrinne now supervises a crew of 30 men including millwrights, vehicle mechanics, snow removal crew, groomers and shuttle drivers.

“We’re a family,” she says. “They call me ‘shop mom’ and I love it.”

No matter what route you take, being a woman in trades is more possible than ever.


“Never too late to learn new things. There is a real sense of community in the trades. And a wonderful sisterhood among the women. You’re never alone in your journey.


According to data from Statistics Canada, the most recent Labour Force Survey reports that in 2018, women working in the trades, account for 34,800. Or 3.9 percent of the total workforce. W

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