As students at the Squamish Nation Trades Centre prepare to suck air out of soggy walls using an air mover, Kimberley Kessel puts on her safety goggles and powers up the machine.

Kessel is a 20-year-old woman of the Squamish and Haida-Gwaii Nations, and one of 48 students at the centre. She’s taking a four-week program to become a flood technician — someone who repairs buildings damaged by water, fire or mould.

Kessel sees the trades as a more stable form of income than her previous jobs in tourism and the service industry.

“I can get a way better career out of [being a flood technician]. Even if I started out as a temp I’d be making more money than [when] I was working almost four or five days a week at the liquor store,” said Kessel.

Squamish Nation Trade Centre

The Squamish Nation Trades Centre was created in partnership with the Sea to Sky Highway project in 2006. (Chelsea Novak and Abeer Yusuf)

B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Jason Kenney, Canada’s employment minister, are both pushing for more high school graduates to enter skilled trades training programs. According to the B.C. Jobs Plan, nearly half the one million jobs created in B.C. will require trades and technical training.

The Trades Centre was created in a partnership between the Sea to Sky Highway project and the Squamish Nation in 2006 to train aboriginals for jobs generated by the project. The centre offers free trades training in courses such as shipbuilding and carpentry and 15-20% of the students are female.

But training for the trades does not guarantee a career. At least not for women.

Barriers for women in trades

“[Women] have a hard time getting a job [or] even getting placed in an apprenticeship with somebody, which is what they need,” said Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a professor at Simon Fraser University who has written about women and other marginalized peoples working in the trades.

While more women have been training for the trades, as of 2011 they still made up only 13 percent of Canadians with trades training and statistics suggest fewer than half of them end up working in the trades. 

On the bright side, the enrolment of aboriginal women in trade schools is on the rise. In 2006, six per cent of B.C. aboriginal women trained in the trades, compared to nine per cent of B.C. non-aboriginal men, who have the highest enrolment in the trades overall.

Kimberley Kessel

Kimberley Kessel learns to use an air mover at the Squamish Nation Trades Centre. (Chelsea Novak and Abeer Yusuf)

While these numbers seem positive, aboriginal women face additional significant barriers to entering the trades. Crystal Quocksister, co-ordinator at the centre since 2009, finds that half the women that come through leave the trades after their training.

Greater barriers for aboriginal women

Quocksister identified two possible reasons for this.

“One [factor] is childcare, just because statistics show that aboriginal women have children at younger ages," said Quocksister. “Another disadvantage is that a lot of the native community do not have drivers’ licenses.” 

'I find that a lot of companies won’t employ me. It’s not even just that I don’t have a license, they require that I have a vehicle.'- Kye Perkins, graduate of Squamish Nation Trades Centre

And not having a license can limit job opportunities. Kye Perkins wants to build homes, but cannot break into the market because she doesn’t have a license.

“I find that a lot of companies won’t employ me. It’s not even just that I don’t have a license, they require that I have a vehicle,” said Perkins, a 26-year-old carpentry graduate of the Trades Centre.

Workplace harassment

Perkins has been working in the trades for the past year and said she has faced considerable sexism on the job site —​ which she said isn’t limited just to aboriginal women.

“I was the only female carpenter on site and I found that right away, the guys really didn’t think that I could hold my end of it,” said Perkins, who graduated top of her class.

Perkins said she felt so uncomfortable that she had to leave the job site after four months.

“It’s a dude’s world. They dominate it and they have a very specific way of doing things, and either you fit in, or you don’t.”

Perkins isn’t the only graduate from the centre who has encountered sexism on the job. Other former students have also reported issues owing to their gender.

And some women come up with their own creative solutions in response.

One former student was reduced to tears when her tools kept getting stolen at work. “She spray painted all of her tools pink. After that, she never had any trouble,” said Quocksister.

Cohen said the government can help prevent this kind of workplace harassment by requiring senior staff to take sensitivity training classes, which are available through unions and private consultation companies.

“Once you have one foreman who doesn’t tolerate it, it doesn’t happen,” she said.

Female students increase despite challenges

“I think women are starting to see that they can make a career out of the trades,” said Quocksister.

Kimberley Kessel

Kessel is eager to gain hands-on experience, even if it means just taping down power cords. (Chelsea Novak and Abeer Yusuf)

Kessel is eager to begin her career. Of course to do that, she will first need to find a job.

Pushing women into trades training doesn’t help them if they cannot find jobs when they are done, but the government may be able to help in other ways.

“Any time it has a public program it should insist that there be equity in its labour force,” said Cohen.

Meanwhile Kessel is waiting for the Squamish Nation Trades Centre to find her a placement as a flood technician.

“I really hope that I can get some experience on my hands, and hopefully after that it may lead to a job,” she said.

This series on aboriginal youth produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.