Women Building Futures nurtures a hidden labor pool

A hybrid facility in Edmonton aims to solve a trades-deficit, one graduate at a time

August 01, 2011

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Photograph by Jason Everitt

As far as career paths go, Charlotte Doerkson took the long way to get where she is today. As a university student, she studied English and theater tech. After graduation, she got married in France, but the union didn’t last. She and her husband separated, and Doerkson returned to Alberta with her daughter. With two mouths to feed, she found work in a retail position. It was no dream job. The work left her unfulfilled and the meager pay made it difficult to support her daughter. “I was basically doing the job of three people and getting paid for one,” says the 32-year-old Stettler, Alberta, resident. But she heard about Women Building Futures, an Edmonton training center designed to attract and train women who want to pursue a career in the construction trades. Doerkson enrolled after deciding the program was a ticket out of a dead-end occupation.

Alberta’s oil and gas industry needs a whole lot more Charlotte Doerksons. In the coming years, the sector could be hard pressed to find the skilled trades workers it needs. That workforce, traditionally dominated by men, is getting old. Many of the workers the industry has come to rely on will be retiring over the next two decades. Growing global demand for oil and natural gas is fueling bullish construction forecasts, with organizations like the International Energy Agency predicting world oil consumption will reach 99 million barrels per day by 2035. Increased crude oil production from Canada, particularly from Alberta’s oil sands, will doubtless play a role in meeting demand. Underpinning growth projections in the northern bitumen belt is a tremendous need for new infrastructure.

Two separate reports, one by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and another published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) provide a glimpse of the activity that’s to come. The CAPP report, titled 2011 Crude Oil Forecast, Markets and Pipelines, projects oil sands production will rise to 3.7 million barrels a day by 2025, more than twice the current level. The PwC report, Global Construction 2020, projects that by 2020, Canada will become the world’s fifth-largest construction market, in large part due to oil sands expansions.

The scenario is encouraging news for the construction industry in Alberta. But there is an elephant in the room. Roughly 320,000 new employees are required between 2011 and 2019 to build and staff new projects, and to offset huge retirement rates in the construction industry across Canada. Only one-third of these new employees will support industry expansion. The remaining two-thirds will offset the loss of employees to retirement. Finding more than 300,000 new employees over the next decade will be a daunting task. Some in the industry realize the importance of tapping non-traditional labor pools like aboriginal people, immigrants, and – increasingly – women.

Fifteen years from now, the main labor demographic will likely still be men, but more and more women are signing up to get their hands dirty in skilled trades alongside their male counterparts. According to statistics from the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada, the percentage of women working in labor positions rose from three to four per cent between 2001 and 2006. The numbers were identical for women working in positions unique to the petroleum industry. It doesn’t sound like a significant amount, but each percentage point represents several thousand workers.

Students learn the finer points of the construction industry at Edmonton’s downtown Women Building Futures training center
Photograph by Jason Everitt

In Alberta, the Women Building Futures (WBF) program has become a fertile farm system for training what remains a hidden labor force. The first of its kind in Canada, it was founded in 1998 to give women the theory, skill training and workplace conditioning tailored to construction trades. The program has grown quickly since moving from a basement on Jasper Avenue to its current location. “WBF pretty much came out of the dust to where it is today,” says president and CEO JudyLynn Archer.

Where it is today is a multi-storey building in downtown Edmonton – formally known as the Women Building Futures Suncor Energy Training Centre – that houses a facility that teaches different trade skills exclusively to women. The concrete-floored basement of the WBF building is the nerve center of the operation. Students are taught six different trades in the construction business: welding, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, sheet metal and pipefitting. The vocations are in high demand. (More than 7,000 skilled trade workers spent two months on a recent plant turnaround at Shell Canada’s oil sands upgrader and refinery complex northeast of Edmonton). WBF also teaches heavy equipment operating at another location, where students learn how to pilot the giant earthmoving equipment that has become a hallmark of oil sands mining.

Torchbearer: Six construction trades are taught at WBF’s Edmonton facility
Photograph by Jason Everitt

In Edmonton, six rooms downstairs in the facility are each geared to train one of the different trades offered by WBF. In the carpentry room there are miniature staircases the women have built, complete with railings. A skeleton of a wall stands in the electrical room, where students learn how to wire and re-wire building infrastructure. The facility provides more than just a series of workshops. It also addresses one of the main barriers faced by women entering skilled trades programs: a lack of affordable housing. The building contains 42 affordable housing units, all of them fully outfitted with appliances, furniture and dishes. Many of them are set up to accommodate women who are single parents, including Doerkson, who lives there with her daughter.

The amenities have helped WBF gain a lot of attention from the women it seeks to train. In 2010, just two years after opening the trade school, it received 2,600 applications from women interested in learning a trade – a significant increase over the previous two years. The school focuses on attracting the 24- to 34-year-old demographic, which makes up about 357,000 of Alberta’s residents. WBF’s Archer believes the program could attract three per cent of that demographic – about 10,700 women – into the labor market in the coming years. While that won’t solve a looming labor crunch on its own, Archer thinks it will definitely help. “Women are a fabulous source of local workers that can step up and work in the industry,” she says.

Doerkson and her fellow trainees should have no problem finding work once they graduate. In its 2010 annual report, WBF reported that 77 per cent of its 72 graduates had been hired, an impressive number considering the economic downturn had slowed construction activity considerably. In 2009, 90 per cent of the program’s 82 graduates found jobs in the construction industry. At the moment, Doerkson has yet to decide what she wants to do between welding and electrical, but she says the most important thing the program has done for her is to build her self-confidence.

Suncor Energy Inc. has been a key supporter of WBF since 2004. The oil sands mining giant, which cranked out an average of 519,000 barrels of oil per day in 2010, provides infrastructure support and bursaries for students. “It’s a great program, and a good way of addressing needs on multiple levels. It addresses the social need, the business need and the workforce need,” says Lori Gammell, manager of the Suncor Energy Foundation and community investment. She values the program because it builds relationships between women and industry, and because it gives them a chance to pursue careers in non-traditional, but much-needed, roles. Suncor also takes advantage of the trained labor the program produces. It recently hired two graduates from WBF’s heavy equipment operator program.

Suncor won’t be alone in looking to tap into this emerging demographic. Consensus forecasts say the rest of the oil and gas sector will have to expand its hiring horizons if it has any hope of keeping up with its ambitious development plans. To date, WBF has trained and placed over 500 women into Alberta’s construction industry. The number is miniscule compared to impending labor needs. But there are signs that those numbers will grow, as WBF isn’t the only institution that is seeing a steady stream of female apprentice applicants each year. The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) had 784 female apprentices in 2010, making up nearly six per cent of its student body.

More than 500 women have been trained and placed into Alberta’s construction industry thanks to the WBF program
Photograph by Jason Everitt

The uptick in female applicants recalls an old pattern. This is not the first time industry has turned to women to help alleviate a labor crunch. During the Second World War, women filled factory jobs vacated by men. The public perception at the time was that labor jobs were no place for women, but desperate times called for what social mores viewed as a desperate solution. To get women to work in the factories, the government released posters with motivational messages. One of them remains an iconic piece of wartime marketing: a tough-looking woman – Rosie the Riveter – flexing her bicep under the slogan, “We can do it!” Fast forward 70 years and Canada – particularly Alberta – is staring down another labor shortage. The circumstances are different, but women today could once again help solve a national labor puzzle. In 2011, the recruitment posters might ask: “When can we start?”

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One Response to “Women Building Futures nurtures a hidden labor pool”

  1. Dallas macaskill says:

    What’s the average costs of a course