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'Viable career': Georgian event aims to attract young women to trades

'It’s chemistry but with tools. It’s science but with tools. It combines all of the things I really love,' says Georgian graduate

Ontario is going to need an additional 100,000 skilled trades workers by 2030, and there’s no reason that shouldn’t include women.

Brandi Ferenc, a part-time instructor for Georgian College’s heating, refrigeration and air conditioning technician and gas fitter programs, was among the many who attended a free skilled trades and technology information event for young women and youth who identify as female at the Barrie campus Saturday.

The event, hosted by the college and Skills Ontario, was aimed at inspiring young women to consider career paths in skilled trades and technologies.

Ferenc, who works as a 313 refrigeration mechanic and gas fitter 1, has been working in the trades for 20 years, and said events like these are important as they help bring awareness to the potential of a career in skilled trades to so many more young women.

“A young woman may realize there are other career paths available than what she might have thought or what may be presented in the high school environments,” she said.

Women, she noted, represent less than five per cent of the skilled trades — which also includes hairdressing and esthetics. That number is even lower when it comes to individuals entering new apprenticeships — with women representing about 4.7 per cent of that.

Even though more females have been entering the trades in recent years, the numbers are still low.

“In my program specifically, this year is my biggest cohort of female students. I have eight young women across both programs. When I went to school, I never went to school with another female. I think it is amazing to see new faces come through, but by no means are we anywhere near what we’ve got to be,” Ferenc said.

She was the first person in her family to attend university, saying at the time it was not a career path many females pursued.

“My parents had already predetermined my post-secondary path, (but) I found out very quickly that I could not sit still or be in an office. So, I gave them their very expensive diploma, (and) then basically worked in hospitality for 13 years,” she said.

By a simple process of elimination of what she knew she didn’t want to do, Ferenc found her way to the trades.

“I realized I didn’t want to sit in an office. I didn’t want to go to the same building every day. I didn’t want to punch a clock … but I also wanted to be financially independent as I had been for quite a long time,” she said.

Even though her father was an electrician and she hailed from a blue-collar family, Ferenc admitted the idea of a career in the trades wasn’t something she’d ever considered.

“It never really clicked for me until later … and I wondered why I couldn’t do it, too. They love what they do every day, their stories were so great, and I never grew up without anything, so, obviously, the money was decent,” she said. “I just thought it was really cool as it was like you got a new adventure every day.”

Oro-Medonte resident Hannah Gulka was never what she’d call a handy person, but always knew she wanted to push herself and learn new skills.

Now, as a second-year student in the college’s HVAC technician program, the 21-year-old is hoping to serve as a role model for other young women who may be interested in the trades.

“I was looking to push myself and learn a new skill because I wasn’t ever around tools. I like putting myself out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It’s a good skill to learn. I could use it in my life outside of my career even if I decided not to go into (the trade).”

Gulka admitted she was unsure what career path she wanted to pursue after graduating high school, and had heard good things about a career in the skilled trades.

“I went head first into this ... and now I really enjoy it,” she said. “As long as you’re working hard … regardless of what people say … push through and eventually you will get to a point where you build your confidence. It’s about trusting and being confident in yourself regardless of others’ input. There are also a lot of great people in the trades who want to nurture you and show you the ropes.”

Rachel Tremblay is a graduate of Georgian Colleges’s gas fitter program. | Nikki Cole/BarrieToday

Rachel Tremblay is a graduate of Georgian’s gas fitter program and is currently working as an HVAC apprentice, after a career change from the health-care industry.

“I always knew I liked working with my hands and with tools. I didn’t really want anybody to come to my house and fix my stuff. I wanted to do it myself,” she said.

Tremblay found herself enjoying the program and, after graduating, decided to make the jump into the industry.

“It’s chemistry but with tools. It’s science but with tools. It combines all of the things I really love,” she said. “I work outside. I work with my hands. I enjoy the aspect of understanding why something isn’t working.”

She often attends events like the one Saturday at Georgian, and she thinks it's important for someone like herself, who has found success in the trades, to help show that anything is possible.

“You just have to apply yourself and put your mind to it,” she said.

“There are so many amazing role models out there and, looking back, I wonder what my life would have looked like today if I'd gotten into the trades right out of high school. It’s been 20 years for me and it’s been the best decision I have ever made,” added Ferenc. “It’s a very viable career path for young women.”

Attendees had the opportunity to network and try hands-on and interactive activities, such as 3D printing, MIG welding, soldering, hair foiling and hair tinselling.