When Karen Pullen visits downtown Toronto, she experiences a feeling of accomplishment. As an Industrial and Commercial Electrician, she has worked on the city’s most well-known buildings, like the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) and Scotia Plaza. “I have such a sense of pride,” she says.

Choosing a career with ample rewards

Sense of accomplishment is just one reason an increasing number of women like Pullen are seeking careers in the trades. Though they make up just 8–10 percent of the tradespeople in Canada, more are joining the ranks. Working as a tradeswoman in the unionized Building Trades ensures equal pay for equal work and in Building Trades workplaces, safety is a top priority.

Pullen started her apprenticeship in 1989 without any hesitation. It was the first step to a livelihood that offered a good living wage, benefits, a pension plan, and doing something she loves.

Growing up with a Millwright father, she knew early on she wanted a job in the trades too. “I was always taking things apart,” she recalls. “I’d read manuals and fix things like washing machines on my own. My disposition was always to be self-sufficient.”

That continues today, thanks to the wealth of knowledge she’s gained over the years on construction sites. “I always say to young women that it’s not just that you can earn a living doing this,” she explains. “It boosts your self-esteem. When you own a home, you have the knowledge to fix things yourself. That helps give you the kind of confidence you need to tackle anything that comes up in life.”

Pullen, now a representative with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 353, also enjoys the camaraderie in her profession. “We are a close-knit group. I have family — people who I love and trust. And I’ve got a place where I always belong.”

More women welcomed to careers in trades

Don Schultz has been a Millwright in Toronto for more than 35 years. “It’s a great career. It’s not a job,” he says. “You go to a site, put together the machinery, whether it’s a conveyer system or turbines. When you leave, you know that you’ve contributed a piece of that puzzle. It’s so gratifying and no day is ever the same.”

Now in his role as coordinator of apprenticeship training with the Millwrights Regional Council of Ontario, Schultz is hoping that more women will join the ranks. “I’d like to see more in our trade,” he says. “We’ve seen women really excel in the field. They are eager to prove themselves and they do great.”

He thinks that maybe a career in trades is just not on the radar enough. His organization and others like the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario are getting the word out to women about the potential rewards accessed through apprenticeships. They offer a unique opportunity to learn while you earn, combining hands-on experience with eight weeks of classroom instruction for every 2,000 hours worked.

Ontario sees a 98 percent completion rate amongst Millwright apprenticeships. Currently, 546 Millwrights (or “machine doctors,” as Schultz describes them) are working and studying in the province. “Applicants tend to stick to it,” he says. “It’s our culture. And it’s a desire to achieve their certificate of qualification that says standards have been met. That safety issues are addressed and the work is of a high quality.”

“We have some women applicants,” says Schultz. “They can do very well in this business, but we’d love to see more. We’re hoping those already in the trades will also encourage others to say, ‘You should try it, too.’ It has so much to offer.”