Women train in trades, begin with torches

In a booth behind a heavy black curtain, novice welder Keira Kucherean was sweating over the heat of a blue flame to fuse together two pieces of…

In a booth behind a heavy black curtain, novice welder Keira Kucherean was sweating over the heat of a blue flame to fuse together two pieces of tarnished metal.

“It’s hot,” she said with a laugh as she brandished a silver torch. “I might do this for a job in a really cold climate.”

Kucherean had been working as an embroiderer before following her interest in trades to this Yukon College welding course.

She enrolled in the Women Exploring Trades and Technology program at the college after her mother showed her the flyer.

“I graduated and started working, but I couldn’t find anything I was really interested in until this came up and I was like, ‘Sweet!’” she said.

Now Kucherean and 11 others are working their way through the 16-week full-time course, which gives women a taste of five trades and the safety skills needed to work in workshops.

The group explores welding, pipefitting, carpentry, electrical and general mechanics — spending two weeks at each.

As well, the women learn tool and industrial safety, rigging and hoisting, first aid and personal development skills, which deal with communication, conflict and gender issues in the male-dominated environment.

“It’s a survey of everything to give them a chance to find out what these trades are about,” said program co-ordinator Betty Irwin, who began lobbying to launch the course going 15 years ago.

“Courses like this have been available at colleges all over Canada for years, but this is the first time we’ve been able to get it going at Yukon College.”

Twenty-four women applied for the 12 first-come, first-serve spots available in this year’s $500 program.

This week, the women are learning how to weld.

“You give me two pieces of metal and I can do many things with them,” said the program’s assistant instructor Isabelle Boucher.

Last year she struggled as the only female in the five-month pre-employment course.

This year she’s back in the studio teaching women the joins and the cuts of the trade.

Being the only woman in a male-dominated profession was tough for Boucher.

“It was challenging, it was harder because I couldn’t relate as well to the guys as I can to the girls in this course,” she said.

“I was at a different stage in life — I was there to do my welding and they were there to screw around all the time.”

During one class, the guys stole her Vise Grips.

“Now I get along with all the girls and I try to support them as much as I can,” said Boucher.

Along with opening new doors for employment, this course will produce much-needed workers in the country’s trades sectors.

Canada, especially Alberta, is experiencing a shortage of trades people, said instructor Ed Bergeron, who teaches arc, wire feed and oxy-acetylene welding.

“For 10 or 15 years now the focus has been on computers and information technology, which is a good thing, but some of the powers that be forgot that somebody’s still got to build that pipeline or build those roads,” he said.

The shortage is pushing up welders’ wages — generally a ticketed welder should make no less than $25 an hour to start.

But this two-week introduction is a first step to becoming a welder.

To continue, students would complete a five-month pre-employment course, which leads to an apprenticeship.

Then, after about four years of full-time welding, students can apply for a journeyman’s certificate and become a ticketed welder.

With the ticket comes a host of job opportunities.

“It runs the whole spectrum from construction, trades, maintenance welding, pipelines, shipbuilding,” said Bergeron.

“If you think of the number of things out there that we use that are made of metal, one can go off in 100 different directions.”

For now, many of the welders coming out of the college’s program have to head south for experience and jobs.

But as Yukon’s economy grows, so does the potential for work closer to home.

“You can’t build a mine without welders,” said Bergeron.

A welder with 37 years of experience on his torch, Bergeron has been teaching at the college for five years.

Of the 10 would-be welders he teaches each year, usually one is a woman, and she does just as well as the men, he added.

Yukon College, Yukon Women in Trades and Technology and the territory partnered to develop the program.