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The cool thing about being a girl in the 21st century is that you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up: an astronaut, an F-1 driver, a molecular gastronomist. You can even be a plumber. And a carpenter. And a welder. And a pipefitter. The skilled trades—long considered the sole province of only the manliest of men—are finally opening up to women workers in a big way.

The shift in trades

Helping to bring about this shift are the dozens of programs available across Canada, designed specifically to get women ready to pick up a trade. At Women Building Futures, an Edmonton-based organization that helps women develop careers in trades, it's the Journeywoman START Program—a 17 week course that teaches basic worksite skills, while allowing students to get a taste of the different trades available.

Meanwhile in Victoria, BC, there's Camosun College's Women in Trades Exploration program. This 12-week course gives students a chance to try out each of the skilled trades programs the school has to offer. “Of course, in just a couple of days you don't really get a sense of the trade in a big-picture way, but we do give a good sense of the typical work environment,” says training development coordinator Karen McNeill. Chances are you'll find yourself hanging drywall one day, and learning to wire a home the next.

Once you've discovered which trade suits your talents, you're on your way to becoming an apprentice – the trades equivalent of an entry-level position. “You spend 10 months a year working, and two months in school, and you alternate back and forth, until you have your work hours accumulated,” explains JudyLynn Archer, president and CEO of Women Building Futures. That's right, ladies: you'll be getting paid to learn.

The pretty penny

“This is definitely a high paying world,” says Archer. “The money you can earn in trades is much greater than the money almost anywhere else. You'll earn good money fast – like, right away.”

And the jobs are out there. “Employers are really seeing the value of having a woman on site,” explains Nancy Moore, manager of employment services and skilled trades at The Centre for Skills and Development Training, in Southern Ontario. “Women bring a variety of skill sets to the job, a different way of doing things, a more collaborative approach.” Soft skills aside, we're also experiencing, what Archer describes as, “a worker shortage of levels unknown to us in this country's history. It's just demographics. People are retiring. That's good news for women.”

The tradeswoman profile

“We have a pretty good mix of ages and backgrounds,” Moore says of the women enrolled at The Centre. “Some have just graduated from colleges and universities and realized that they wanted something more hands-on and physical; some are women who never really had the opportunity to establish a career.”

Even if you're already on your way to a degree or diploma, you can still pick up a trade after you're done. “We need technologists, engineers, architects, and project managers—big time. Having an undergraduate degree gives you a pretty good foundation for a strong career,” Archer explains. “We see lots of women who have a degree, and then decide to get into the trades. They find the work challenging—mentally and physically. It's like getting paid to stay fit, and you need to be on your game every day.”

When asked what the future of trades looks like for women, she laughs and replies: “fabulous!"

Photos: monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock