5 perspectives on women in the skilled trades
"Put me in a bigger machine and I'm stronger than the biggest guy in the room"
Women in the skilled trades in northwestern Ontario are breaking rocks and breaking sterotypes.
Girls in grades 10 to 12, who are enrolled in the trades and technology programs at the Lakehead Public, Thunder Bay District Catholic and the Conseil scolaire de district catholique des Aurores boréales school boards, had a chance to see some of those women in action on April 20.
The three school boards, based in Thunder Bay, pooled provincial funding they'd received for youth apprenticeship programs and organized a day-long field trip for about 30 female students to North American Palladium's mining operation at Lac des Iles, about 100 kilometres north of the city.
Here are five perspectives on being a woman and having an interest in the skilled trades.
Karri Chartier is a heavy equipment operator at the Lac des Iles mine.
She started in housekeeping at the mine just to get her foot in the door, and "pestered them" until she could get the training to operate the big rigs.
"It took me three years in housekeeping to chase down the right person to let me in, but it was worth it, in the end, because now I have a career whereas I just had a job before."
Chartier told the teenagers that her slight stature has never been a problem on the job.
"In a machine you're equal to everybody. Put me in a bigger machine and I'm stronger than the biggest guy in the room."
She was passionate about the joy she has found in her career.
"I still sit up top on the haul road & look at the sunset and I can't believe I have this job. It's amazing. I love it!"
Christine Korzenko is the Superintendent of Human Resources at Lac des Iles.
Her first career was nursing, but over the years she migrated into mining and management.
Korzenko has worked in many mining camps and enjoys the "family" atmosphere of the tight-knit communities.
"I'm going to tell you that there isn't any job you can't do here, from being a miner underground, to working as a mechanic to the heavy equipment. When we look at skills and ability we don't look at whether you're male or female, we look at what are the skills you're bringing here and how badly do you want to do the job."
Jamie McMillan is an ironworker, boilermaker and a welder from Hamilton, who runs KickAss careers, a company which promotes the skilled trades to young people.
Her business card proudly states "Journeyman - it's a status, not a gender".
McMillan said she'll never forget the day her superintendent asked her to walk across a steel beam that was more than 50 metres in the air.
"My heart was beating through my chest, but I just took a deep breath and I thought 'I'm going to show him I can do this' and I stepped out there and walked right across that steel."
Her message to the students was simple - take at least one trade or technology class while you're in high school.
"You might change your entire career path and realize you love working with your hands and you might go from wanting to be a doctor or lawyer to actually wanting to be in the construction industry. And if you don't learn that's what you want to do for a career you are going to learn practical life skills," such as changing a flat tire, basic electrical work and basic plumbing.
Autumn Mielke, who is in Grade 12 at Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Thunder Bay, is planning a career in welding.
She has taken several high school welding courses, completed an internship with a Thunder Bay company and will study welding at Confederation College in the fall.
"It gives me a peace of mind because when I'm welding a bead I'm focussed on it, I'm not thinking about my other problems when I'm welding."
Alyssa Ritchie is in Grade 11 at Sir Winston Churchill Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Thunder Bay.
Her love of building has been nurtured through several construction courses, but she hadn't seriously considered a career in the trades until the tour.
Ritchie asked questions of every mine official and said the day "was a big eye-opener".
She expressed her thoughts in a letter to Jeremy Noel, the pathways coordinator for Lakehead Public Schools.
"This opportunity gave me the vision to dream big and be courageous to explore everything while I'm young. I would definitely attend this program again in a heart beat! Today has made choosing a path for college/university/apprenticeship so much more difficult now as there is a world of career choices out there."