Diversity success: The stories of 10 Ontario women in construction today

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women in construction
women in construction

Across a variety of sectors, women play key roles in the construction industry, taking on leadership roles, providing support, and working in front line positions shaping and building the world around us.

This month we introduce you to just some of the women who are the face of the industry today. We’ve selected 10 individuals for this feature to give you a sense of the career diversity and new opportunities for women in non-traditional occupations.

Patty Coates

Peggy Coates
Peggy Coates

Patty Coates, secretary treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), is an activist, education assistant and long-time member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (OSSTF).

In her work with OSSTF, she chaired the OSSTF Provincial Collective Bargaining Committee-Negotiations Advisory Sub Committee, was active in the OSSTF Provincial Status of Women committee and the Provincial Parliamentary and Constitution Committee, and negotiated five collective agreements. She was elected to OFL in 2015 to “help rally the members – and the resources – of a united labour movement in Ontario.”

Other past roles include president of the Barrie and District Labour Council for eight years, vice-president and council delegate, and labour co-chair of the Simcoe Muskoka Workforce Development Board.

According to her OFL profile, her “background as a Labour Council activist drives her commitment to community based, grassroots labour activism that brings together union members at a local level. Her passionate commitment to equality has earned her a reputation as a mentor and supporter of young women who are new to the labour movement and political activism.”

Jamie McMillan

Jamie McMillan
Jamie McMillan

Jamie McMillan is a journeyman ironworker with Local 736 in Hamilton and a boilermaker with Local 146 in Edmonton. She is also a public speaker and travels across North America promoting careers in Skilled Trades and Technology through her organization KickAss Careers.

Growing up, Jamie wasn’t aware of the vast opportunity in the construction industry. She followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a health care professional but did not find her pathway fulfilling. Discovering the trades changed her career path and gave her a feeling of self worth and empowerment. Since that time, she has worked on job sites across the country.

McMillan says she loves her job, the unique skill sets she has acquired over the years and the ability to live a self-sufficient independent lifestyle. She enjoys the variety of something new and adventurous every day.

“I love the rush I get when I work at heights or look back and see a structure I am partly responsible for putting in place that will outlive me and many generations to follow. I love how all the trades work together to build the structures and landmarks that decorate our countryside, bridge our waterways and support our towering cities.”

She says it is important for women to understand that construction is more than being on the tools. Tools she says are just a foot in the door and a great way to gain experience when considering the next step or career choice. There are an endless number of pathways and alternatives including safety, quality control, welding inspector, planning, engineering, estimating and more.

Noting that 30 is the new 20, McMillan says if a young woman is seeking a lucrative career that offers incredible wages, a great pension and benefits, skilled trades are worth considering. “Earn while you learn in your apprenticeship you get ahead so by the time you are 30 you can have money in the bank, a paid mortgage, a reliable vehicle and even have opportunities to travel.”

Brandi Ferenc

Brandi Ferenc
Brandi Ferenc

Brandi Ferenc is a licensed HVACr mechanic 313a, a gas fitter 1, and a member of UA local 787. She has been employed by Johnson Controls for the past decade.

Ferenc says that in her role she enjoys the challenge of daily learning and new challenges and appreciates the breadth of experience she has gained over the years. Her greatest career accomplishment has been writing her CofQ (certificate of qualification) to become a Red Seal journeyman.

As part of Johnson’s service division, Ferenc is dispatched daily to sites across the GTA, working with clients in a variety of sectors. “I have had the unique experience to work on centrifugal water-cooled chillers and since I recently transferred to the Toronto branch I now have an opportunity to focus and develop my skills troubleshooting and servicing chillers as part of their chiller team.”

Tearing apart larger than life machinery using rigging equipment, completing a repair and then reassembling the massive equipment she says is satisfying.

When she is not meeting the demands of the job, Ferenc escapes to the lake in summer time for a break. She also participates in Conestoga College’s Jill of all Trades events and speaks with pre-apprentice HVAC graduates about careers in the field.

Lynn Bedard

Brandi Ferenc
Brandi Ferenc

Lynn Bedard is a utility service representative with Union Gas and serves the Hamilton region. Her job involves responding to leak investigations, installing gas meters, and more. She is a G2 gas fitter and a member of Unifor, a private sector union representing more than 310,000 members across Canada.

With two brothers in the trades and a family history of home renovations that exposed her to hands on work, Bedard eventually decided to pursue a pre-apprenticeship plumbing program at Sheridan College. Beyond the education the course provided, she says if gave her the confidence she needed to know she could do the job and the exposure to know she would enjoy the work.

Her first job was a plumbing apprenticeship through United Associations local 67. Today, she applies her experience and knowledge, working with public to solve and identify problems and educating them on the safe use of natural gas.

Virve Manniste

Virve Manniste
Virve Manniste

Virve Manniste is a Red Seal journeyman steamfitter and a member of United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters, Local Union 800, Sudbury. She has been a working member of the union since 1988, indentured into the hall in March 1989.

Though always fascinated with construction, she says a girl being educated in the trades wasn’t really an option for her at the time. She came to her current career later in life, at the age of 35, after what she calls a series of career missteps.

She says her greatest achievement to date is completing her apprenticeship, and obtaining her journeyman status. “I came into the trade at a time when very few women were working in the skilled trades. Many, many women began apprenticeships, but very few completed. As the first woman in my local, I have tried to be an ambassador for our trade, behaving professionally, both on and off the job.”

She has worked across Canada in a variety of environments, including refineries, mines, steel mills, paper mills and power plants. “After almost 30 years in the trade, working in all types of construction and maintenance environments, I am still learning. As I approach retirement, I have begun working nuclear, a fascinating and new learning experience. I face new challenges and continue to learn with every new job I begin. The life of a steamfitter is never boring.”

Sarah Lord

Sarah Lord
Sarah Lord

Sarah Lord is a form setter with LiUNA local 183. She has been in the industry for 15 years.

The work can be physically demanding and Lord says if takes a particular mentality, attitude and personality to succeed. Though there has been more acceptance in recent years, she says hers is a trade still dominated by men and where standing out as a woman isn’t a positive.

“There have been job sites I’ve arrived at and people are stumped by what to do with me as a woman in the field. It doesn’t take long though for me to show what I can do and I have been asked for specifically and often by these same clients later.”

Understanding that there are few women in the trade, Lord says she finds it easier to blend in with her male counterparts, rather than making waves. “I don’t want to stand out as a woman one a jobsite. If anything, I want to be accepted as someone who can be part of the team and as someone who can be relied on to get the job done.”

Lord has geared her life to be flexible to meet the demands of the job. She has a small hobby farm, is a hunter, fisher, knitter and sewer. She is also involved with the conservationist group Ducks Unlimited.

Jennifer McLean

Jennifer McLean
Jennifer McLean

Jennifer McLean is a mason’s tender with LiUNA local 183. She has been in the industry since 2003 and with the union since 2004.

As a mason’s tender, McLean’s role involves mixing mortar, slogging brick and stone, running mechanical scaffolding, and any other labour related tasks the masons require.

She also works with concrete operating a jackhammer and working at other tasks.

McLean says her job requires her to be physically strong and agile. “I was involved on working on the Quinte Courthouse where I was lifting stones that weighed as much as I do.

Other projects can involve climbing scaffolding 10 storeys high so strength and co-ordination are both key.”

Coming to the field from a career in aboriculture, McLean quickly recognized the benefits the trade offered in pay and security. She says it has been challenging though as a woman in the field, which is still largely dominated by men. “I’m the only female in our local working in masonry so I’m proud of that. It’s easier now that my children are grown but when they were younger, it was a challenge to balance work and daycare and all that being a mother requires.”

She says though the work is mentally and physically challenging, the work of a labourer is more secure than many other options and she will continue in her role as mason’s tender for the challenge, the satisfaction of seeing a job done, and the opportunity.

Jaqueline Shaw

Jacqueline Shaw
Jacqueline Shaw

Jacqueline Shaw is a traffic controller and labourer with LiUNA local 183 and is in her third season.

As the mother of six children, four of whom are still at home, Shaw says means making a decent wage and job stability are key. She says gender has never been an issue in her job and, in fact, currently works on a crew with several other women. She appreciates the team environment she has found with everyone on her team. “Being a flagger is physically demanding, can involve really long days, and can be scary at times, with the speed and unpredictability of vehicles. We have each other’s back.”

Though the work can be challenging and hard on the body, the wages, benefits, pension and stability make it worthwhile.

Vanessa MacIsaac

Vanessa MacIsaac
Vanessa MacIsaac

Vanessa MacIssac is a grade foreman with Coco Paving and a member of LiUNA local 183. She has been in the industry for 14 years and with Coco Paving now for four.

MacIssac started her career as a flagger and a short time later, was taught to be a grade person by a former supervisor. Today she is responsible for planning the day’s work, getting her crew organized and checking grades. She says the physical demands of the job means the work is not for everyone and in fact, she says she has not encountered another woman in this role over her career.

As a woman on an all male site, she says it was important in the early days to earn respect by proving what she could do, lifting, running the equipment, and dealing with whatever the weather had in store. Today, at Coco, she says the team is like a big family.

She is proud of the work she accomplishes daily, proud of becoming a foreman and all of the work that took, and proud of balancing the challenges of being a single mom and a success in her career.

“I would love to see more women in the trades,” she says.”The work is challenging, but also rewarding.”

Stephanie Harriman

Stephanie Harriman
Stephanie Harriman

Stephanie Harriman works dispatch for Coco Paving and is a member of LiUNA local 183. In her current role for a year now, she has used her patience, organizational skills, and the ability to stay calm in challenging situations to earn the respect of her colleagues.

“The challenge for any woman in the industry is to be taken seriously. In this job, the phone can ring from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. and you have to be ready to handle whatever is on the other end.”

Harriman balances these challenges with a part-time weekend job and an annual fundraiser she started seven years ago to benefit the Canadian Cancer Society. “The event is called Time for Change. It is a dinner and silent auction in honour of my grandfather who died of cancer. To date we’ve raised more than $45,000.”

She says she encourages other women to consider roles in the trades. “If you can hold your own, there are some great jobs with great potential.”

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