Iron Worker Women

With nearly 2,000 active women members, the Iron Worker's Union continues to engage and recruit women ironworkers in the United States and Canada.  Our new "Ironworker Women" page will have news, articles, information and updates on issues and events of interest to women ironworkers and the men who work beside them every day.  

Breaking Down Old Perceptions: An Interview with Ironworker and Tradeswomen Advocate Jamie McMillan

by Jordan Adams

Canada’s construction industry is facing a crisis. With countless skilled tradespeople now reaching retirement age, there are too many job vacancies and not enough workers with the right skills. Essential construction projects will be compromised or canceled if these positions are filled, which would have a huge impact on our economy. With so many well-paying careers available, why aren’t more women entering the trades to take advantage of the labour shortage?

While women are still drastically underrepresented in the trades—97 percent of the workforce is male—some people are working to break down the perception that it is a “man’s job.” Remember how there was once a time when women could not practice medicine, law and many other professions? Yet today it’s commonplace for women to be excelling in these fields. That’s what advocates like Jamie McMillan are trying to achieve for women in the trades. While women on construction sites still face some of the sexism and disrespect that the first female doctors might have faced, this type of behaviour is becoming less prevalent and women are now on the whole accepted as valued tradespeople.

Ms. McMillan, an ironworker from Hamilton, Ontario, decided she wanted to help other women in the trades through support and mentorship. Journeyman was born and is now an initiative of Canada’s building trades unions. As Journeyman’s spokesperson, McMillan is working to spread the message. She is working to spread the message that there are great careers out there for women in the trades—they just need to be educated about the opportunities and the challenges. Career Options spoke with her about her experience as an ironworker and why more women should consider a career as a building tradesperson.

Career Options: How did you get into the trades?

Jamie McMillan: I became an ironworker apprentice in 2002 after running into an acquaintance who mentioned it to me in passing. One day, out of sheer boredom, I decided to take a walk to the union hall and apply. At the time I was working at a nursing home as a personal support worker and working at a sports bar serving.

CO: What do you like most about your work?

JM: I enjoy the physical aspect of my job the most. I like working with the boys and being strong. I was a tomboy growing up.

CO: What are some things you don’t like?

JM: I don’t like being seen as the weaker gender in the trades. I want to be seen as an equal and given the same opportunities as the men. I might not always be as physically strong as some of my male counterparts, but I can work just as long and hard as anyone else and am driven by the challenge to prove it.

CO: How did Journeyman come about?

JM: After years of brainstorming ideal ways to get the message out to other women interested in careers in trades, I opened up about it last year to a few people and Journeyman was born. It took a few pushes but I finally put my ideas into action in 2012. 

CO: Why have women traditionally not considered working in the trades?

JM: Many women like myself have not been educated about the opportunities that exist in the skilled construction trades. In previous years schools didn’t offer programs, incentives and information to women about non-traditional career paths. Due to lack of education, women didn’t consider construction as an option because it was a male- dominated workforce and traditionally women were housewives that raised children. Times are changing.

CO: Is physical strength always a requirement for working in the trades?

JM: It is important to be strong physically, mentally and emotionally in the trades. There will always be challenges. Some men will always frown on women exploring careers in the trades. They are actually the men that drive me to succeed—however, a large majority are very accepting and helpful. Physical strength is important but that will come with time. There are so many mechanical advantages now with cranes, forklifts, chain falls, jacks and other equipment that it has become much easier to work smarter rather than harder. Also trades workers work together as a team to ensure and promote a safe work environment.

CO: What kind of support is out there for women working in the trades?

JM: Seeing as we are still low in numbers, social media and other online networking has brought women from all over the world together to support, mentor and talk about our ventures in the trades with one another. Conferences are held every year for women of all trades to meet and discuss the pros and cons of being in the trades, and we work together to help encourage one another as we create strong bonds and friendships. Journeyman is also a national program through Canada’s Building Trades Unions that will bring great exposure and awareness to women in trades and also be a great tool in promoting, supporting and mentoring women in the skilled construction trades.

CO: What do you see for the future of women in the trades?

JM: In the future more women will become skilled trades workers. There is a shortage of workers as the Baby Boomers retire. As women become more independent and seek equal opportunity for great wages, benefits, pensions—to name a few—our numbers will increase. The more we get into schools, programs, and educate young women through mentorship, the more they will see the many incredible career paths they can pursue in the skilled trades. There are 14 skilled trades unions in Canada and over 60 apprenticeships within them, journeyman wages that range from $35 to $45 per hour, and a range of work from coast to coast. It sells itself. 

Jordan Adams is a Carleton University journalism graduate and editor at Career Options.

For more information, please visit: journeymaninc.ca, buildingtrades.ca, careeroptionsmagazine.com

You can read more about Jamie and her work here.