Pastry chef-turned-pipefitter wins national award for top woman in trades

A former pastry chef now working as a steamfitter in Edmonton has won a national award for women in the trades.

Edmonton's Sabrina O’Brien wins top journeyman award from industry group ACTIMS

Sabrina O'Brien displays the trophy she received for winning the ACTIMS Women in Trades Journeyman Award. (Submitted by Sabrina O'Brien)

A former pastry chef now working as a pipefitter in the Edmonton area has won a national award for women in the trades.

The Alberta Council of Turnaround Industry Maintenance Stakeholders (ACTIMS) gives out one award and two bursaries (for apprentices) annually to women who are members of building trade unions in Canada.

This year, Sabrina O'Brien, a steamfitter-pipefitter for Melloy Industrial Services Inc., won the top journeyman award. The honour came with a trophy and cash prize of $1,500. 

Fifty applicants competed for the three awards, which go to women who demonstrate integrity, excellence and leadership within the maintenance and construction trades industries.

O'Brien said her superintendent at work, Kristopher Kucher, brought the award to her attention and encouraged her to apply. He also submitted a reference letter with her application.

She is the first pipefitter to win the award.

"I'm very proud of that," she told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active on Wednesday.

"I definitely noticed there are not that many females who go into this trade in particular." 

Sabrina O'Brien holds her award beside Local UA488 business manager Rod McKay. O'Brien has been a member of the union for 11 years. (Submitted by Sabrina O'Brien)

From pastry art to pipefitting

O'Brien, who grew up on Cape Breton Island, pursued a career as a pastry chef after high school.

She completed the pastry arts program at Holland College's Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, then moved to Calgary, where she worked at Fairmont's Palliser hotel.

Her enthusiasm for the job waned after a few years. Weekends and holidays were the busiest times in the restaurant industry and one year, she missed flying home for Christmas.

"I just remember thinking I didn't really want to give all that up," she said.

A few of her cousins were pipefitters, so she talked to them about the trade and figured it could be a good fit.

She enroled in Nova Scotia Community College's steamfitting/pipefitting program and didn't look back.

Steamfitter Sabrina O'Brien working in August at the NWR Sturgeon Refinery for Melloy Industrial Services. (Submitted by Cindy Borsje/Melloy Industrial Services)

O'Brien loves that her current career demands problem solving, mathematics and working outside, far from a desk. 

"That's where I excel," she said.

Though more women have found work in skilled trades in recent years, trades remain overwhelmingly male-dominated.

According to Statistics Canada data, women comprised less than four per cent of workers in the industrial, electrical and construction trades in 2018.

O'Brien said her views on being a woman in a male-dominated industry have changed over time.

She entered the field not having known a single female tradesperson and she definitely came across "naysayers," but over the past decade, she said, the number of women around — and acceptance from male colleagues — has increased.

"If you can show up every day and work hard, then for the most part, people aren't really going to care what gender you are," she said.

She encourages women who are interested in the trades to pursue them because they can be fulfilling and lucrative.

"As women we don't have to fit into the box that society has put us in," she said.

"I have two young girls and I want them to think that they can do anything that they want."


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news and files for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.