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Calloused hands, yellow hard hats, and a grimy pair of construction boots are all common connotations of someone with a job in the trades. You may also be reminded of your father, grandpa, or uncle—one of which might work in construction, engineering, or mechanics. But now more than ever, the trades are less exclusively a “man’s world.” In fact, according to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, women are regularly dirtying their hands in jobs related to aerospace, forestry, green energy technologies, biotechnology in agriculture, and engineering.

Tanna Marino’s enduring job hunt came to a sudden halt the day her refrigerator broke. She was a stay-at-home mom who dabbled in the flooring and tiling business after high school but decided not to pursue post-secondary education. After calling for help from the owner of Mr. Appliance, a home appliance repair company, Marino and her husband were impressed with the technician’s service and ended up chatting with him in depth on their driveway. According to Marino, the owner hinted that he was looking for new technicians at his office and she decided to seize the opportunity. “I put my heels and my skirt on and went to apply for a technician job,” she says. “They looked at me a little cross-eyed but decided to try me out anyway.”

She says she was thoroughly trained to fix home appliances and in no time was driving the company vehicle to multiple houses per day. Her infectious work ethic led to her eventual appearance on Undercover Boss, which producers initially told her would be a project called Don’tQuit Your Day Job.  “My biggest fear was embarrassing myself, my company, or my family,” says Marino. “So I prayed immensely on it, asked for advice from people that I admired in my life, and eventually came to the conclusion that I would go ahead and do the show.”

She admits she had no idea that the CEO of The Dwyer Group, which owns Mr. Appliance, was female. She didn’t discover this until “Faith Brown” removed her dark wig and contact lenses, revealed herself as CEO Dina Dwyer-Owens, and offered Marino $35,000 to put towards an education plan for her children. She also received $5,000 to help initiate The Dwyer Group’s Women in the Trades program.

 “She had asked me to work on the Women in the Trades initiative with her on the show, and in agreeing to do that I went to a meeting that I was invited to and came up with a campaign because I didn’t want to go empty-handed,” says Marino. “I basically came up with a campaign that linked the Dwyer Group women and the women of the World War era. When you think back to that era, you think of family and work ethics and how there were so many different women in the men’s industry at the time, working industrial jobs.”

History class tells us Marino is right. During World War II, for example, thousands of women agreed to perform important jobs vacated by men who were fighting overseas. Then, as today, the skilled trades were necessary professions where women could boast their leadership skills and abilities. Today, over 150 sectors in the trades are offering gender-neutral positions with average wages that range between $14 and $54 per hour. Most also come with medical and retirement benefits.

Marino’s dedication and creative spirit eventually led to her current position as corporate consultant for Mr. Appliance, a job that allows her to work from home and spend more time with her family. According to Heather McLeod, senior marketing manager at The Dwyer Group, Marino likely experienced such a positive response as a technician because women are generally the ones to make the call to Mr. Appliance and tend to be more comfortable when service professionals are female.

She adds that the women’s initiative has been pushing for a female scholarship for women who are already working in the trades and want to take their careers to the next level with additional training. “It’s also for women who aren’t part of the trades but are looking to come in with the traditional training they can use to start a job in things like plumbing, electrical, glass repair, and appliance repair,” she says.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands, and if that’s something you’re good at, then why not make it into a career?” says Marino. “They asked me several times if I thought Dina was going to be a good technician and I said that’s not really up to me. If she has the ambition and drive to go after it as a career then she can do whatever she wants.”

Academics are welcome, too!

Careers in the skilled trades and technologies often require solid skills in math, analytical abilities, and literacy. And according to Maninder Dhaliwal, executive director of Tradeworks BC in Vancouver, a woman working in the trades should be imaginative, resourceful, and able to figure out complex specifications and requirements in real-world applications.

Dhaliwal grew up in India, where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. “My father was an engineer and I was always fascinated by how he could build things, whereas everyone else had to go buy things from the store,” she says. “He could just build things from scratch. Growing up in the traditional Eastern culture, engineering was not something women did. But I wanted to be like my father.” 

Upon completion of her undergrad, she was offered a scholarship from the University of British Columbia, where she received her master’s in electrical engineering. While attending UBC, Dhaliwal says the only women’s washroom was on the admin floor, which was significantly far from her regular classrooms. Fortunately, since she began teaching at the UBC School of Architecture (among various other campuses), she says the newer buildings offer both female and male washrooms on every level in order to match the increase of female students.

She now runs Tradeworks BC, a non-profit social enterprise that has helped women and at-risk youth find employment for nearly 20 years. The organization supports people with minor disabilities, victims of sexual abuse, and young adults who may have criminal records and want to build a better rapport. According to Dhaliwal, her company teaches life skills, employability skills, and emotional intelligence skills through hands-on training in the trade of carpentry.

Slowly erasing the "man's world" stigma

In 2007, out of a total of 24,495 individuals who completed an apprenticeship training program, only 2,780 (or 11 per cent) were females. As of 2011, about 8 in 10 registered apprenticeship certificates were held by men. According to Statistics Canada, women between the ages of 25 and 64 with degrees in science and technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences currently make up 33 per cent of Canadians working in the trades. Considering the average age of a tradesperson today is 55, Canada will be looking to hire replacements soon. In fact, the Conference Board of Canada predicts that one million skilled workers will be needed by 2020.

“The culture is changing but not fast enough,” says Dhaliwal. “The only way to change it is to put more women in charge of teams. We need women in decision-making … I am a woman and I run the organization, and our shop is run by women and men. We put the women in the same position as their male counterparts, so it’s possible that women are equal to men because they do the same job; they have the same qualifications.”

In terms of benefits, Dhaliwal says “it’s the pay, it’s the confidence, it’s the skills, and it’s the ability to be in charge of your own destiny. And when you have technical skills, you are not that easily replaceable as a worker. We have a lot of contractors that are female. They work when their kids are at school but they make enough money to not have to work all day. They have a flexible lifestyle.”

Kiana Danial followed a similar path and studied electrical engineering in Japan. She says she was the only female student in her class. “It just made me stronger and it taught me to not give up. It was very hard, to be honest, especially in an engineering course where people were a lot more studious. I felt pretty left out most of the time.”

But her temporary loneliness worked to her benefit. She’s now the successful CEO ofINVEST DIVA, a company that teaches women the art of foreign exchange trading. Danial says she was fascinated by the intelligence of Japanese women and their ability to self-teach trading currencies on the foreign exchange market. She decided to do a little more research and discovered that women often make smarter and less risky investment choices than their male counterparts. Her journey has led to appearances on CNN and the publication of her own book, “Invest Diva’s Guide to Making Money in Forex: How to Profit in the World’s Largest Market.” Her website now features an interactive online education course for women of all ages to learn the art of trading.

According to Danial, accomplishing these feats required a lot of trial and error, but she wasn’t afraid to make her presence known. (In fact, her persistence actually got her fired at one point. She says she took it as a compliment and decided to become her own boss.)

No matter your path, McLeod advises, “If there’s anything you’re passionate about—whether that means working in the trades or joining the military or anything that’s traditionally male-dominated—and you think it’s a place for you, then absolutely go for it! Reach out to women who are already in the industry and who are paving the way.” Regarding the surge in female tradespersons, she adds, “it’s just so exciting to see … it’s not something you hear about or see every day!”

Photos: Planet_Dirt_Project/Thinkstock