‘The industry requires smart people. It’s not just about brute force. It’s the ability to think, problem solve, make decisions and work with others. Women are good at that.’
Owner and Director of Operations Muriel Torchia Shyjak had the opportunity to speak with Winnipeg Free Press reporter, Martin Cash, while attending the Manitoba Construction Sector Council Building Our Future Conference this week. The conference is aimed at women looking to break into the industry, those already in it, and breaking down barriers and finding opportunities in a still male-dominated industry. All proceeds from the conference are being donated to Women in Trades scholarships.
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Women currently make up only about two per cent of the construction industry workforce, and regardless that some men may be threatened by the presence of women in the workplace, the industry needs to get those numbers up.
To help that relationship-building process, the Manitoba Construction Sector Council — along with sponsorship from all of the industry groups and several of the largest construction companies in the province — is holding the first-ever Women in Trades conference that ends Wednesday at the Victoria Inn.
By the year 2020, the federal government has stated that 319,000 new jobs will be required in the construction sector alone. Even though forecasters predict the Manitoba construction scene will cool down a bit after the end of construction of Bipole III and the Keeyask dam, there is still the matter of the current wave of baby boomer retirements that means the industry must aggressively recruit women.
Carol Paul, executive director of the Manitoba Construction Sector Council, said 19 per cent of the workforce will be retiring in the next few years.
“Even if we have have a bit of slow down, we are still not going to have enough workers to fill the positions that are available,” she said. “Quite often you hear, ‘It’s a man’s world.’ It really isn’t. The industry requires smart people. It’s not just about brute force. It’s the ability to think, problem solve, make decisions and work with others. Women are good at that.”
It’s also been shown that women take better care of their equipment, they are consistent and they will spot issues that come up and report them before they become bigger issues.
There will always be sexist prejudices in the society, but conference goers heard tips like when they hit a barrier be sure not to be held back by one person’s views.
“Surround yourself with people who will support you. Find mentors,” Paul said. “My board chair, Colleen Munro, has been instrumental in me advancing in my role.”
And Paul herself has helped others. Mila Mirkin, who works as a transportation designer at the engineering firm, Aecom, in Winnipeg, received her civil engineering degree in Israel. She is working her way through the Canadian certification process with just one exam to go.
She has been at Aecom for more than four years and said that she is happy and lucky to have the position she has. At one point she reached out to Paul for advice.
“I got some amazing advice about how to adjust, to be more confident and about how to be a part of the Canadian workplace environment,” Mirkin said.
Women are being encouraged to consider a career in the trades far more aggressively these days. A new federally funded program called the Office to Advance Women Apprentices has just opened a Manitoba office after experiencing phenomenal success in Newfoundland and Labrador where female participation in the trades went from two per cent to 13 per cent.
Murial Torchia Shyjak, an environmental design graduate, worked in the field for a few years then had the opportunity to buy a contracting firm and since 2016 has been the owner of MG Electrical/Mechanical Services Ltd.
“I get a lot of emails addressed to “Dear Sir” and when people ask to speak to the owner they are sometimes taken aback when I tell them I am the owner,” she said.
She said general contractors may have underestimated her at the beggining but they are quick to come around.
“I do my research,” she said. “I want to know what I’m talking about.”
She also goes out of her way to volunteer at events like the Women in Trades conference and to seek out other women in the business. Meanwhile she now employs about 30 trades people including some women.
Colleen Munro, has been a bit of flag bearer for women in the construction industry for some time. For the past 12 years she has run Munro Construction and has been responsible for sending crews into remote work sites for many years.
“Cultural barriers still need to be overcome. Of course there is still prejudice,” she said. “I always say, you can have all the rules in the HR department but people still have their own prejudices. It is up to the company owners to limit that. If they see women working beside the men the cultural barriers start to have less of an impact.”
And Munro points out the economic realities.
“It used to be that parents and teachers said the smart kids should go to university and the not so smart kids go into the trades,” she said. “Now the people in the trades are making more money than people who graduate from university. And there are plenty of jobs.”
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Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.