Eighteen female students are wrapping up their first semester studying trades at Nova Scotia Community College.

They're scholarship winners through Women Unlimited, a non-profit that promotes trades training as a way to get more women into good-paying jobs and into a field dominated by men.

Only five per cent of Nova Scotia's skilled trades workers are women, according to the group. At the Irving Shipyard, home of several big government contracts, the group says only 3.7 per cent of the workforce is female.

As part of the program, students are also doing on-the-job training at Irving Shipbuilding in welding and metal fabrication. Irving is paying their tuition and promising jobs after graduation.

CBC met two of the first year students at the NSCC Akerley campus Thursday.

Toshia Crawford

"I love it and this is for me," metal fabrication student Toshia Crawford says. (CBC)

Toshia Crawford worked as a manager at Tim Hortons before being accepted into the metal fabrication program, which includes a full scholarship. 

"I really love the fact that this is hands-on. You learn at your own pace, which is excellent because everybody learns at different levels," Crawford said.

"I chose this program because there's more of a blueprint and bending of the metal pieces, just more action in it, rather than just welding."

She says fewer women than men go into trades because it's not presented as a feasible option. 

"The reason they don't is being they don't know enough about it," Crawford said. "They're not exposed at all to it, especially in high school."

Most of the people in the Women Unlimited program enrolled in welding, so Crawford is one of only six female students in her class. She first learned about the program by searching online.  

"I had no idea. I said I would never be a welder and here I am today," Crawford said.

"I love it — and this is for me."

Erin MacDonnell

"I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be," welding student Erin MacDonnell says. (CBC)

Erin MacDonnell, a mother of a 14-year-old son, says she couldn't have left her minimum wage job in retail without the scholarship from Women Unlimited. 

"It's always a financial burden even thinking about school," MacDonnell said. 

"It just goes to show it doesn't matter how old you are, you can turn your life around."

MacDonnell is one of 12 women in her welding class, and while she says all the genders work well together, she can see why so few women enter the trade.

"It might be intimidating, as well, since it is such a male-dominated workforce, but the great thing about Women Unlimited is to get more women out there, and feel like we can do just as good — or even better — of a job than men," MacDonnell said.

"I never imagined I would actually be in this trade."

During the hands-on training, she "fell in love right away" with welding, she said.  

"It's very, very exciting. I've gained so much confidence and I am very very proud of myself for how far I've come," MacDonnell said. 

"I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be."