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Okanagan College lowers barriers for women in trades

A participant in the Women in Trades Training program at Okanagan College working on a fender. The program helps to encourage women to enter the skilled trades.

By Jeff Sanford

Kelowna, British Columbia — March 3, 2016 — A program at British Columbia’s Okanagan College may be just the thing to patch up the holes in staff rosters of west coast collision repair facilities. The Okanagan College Women in Trades program provides encouragement to women looking to train in a number trades, including collision repair.

One of the administrators of the program is Nancy Darling. She originally put together the proposal to access grant money to make the program happen. In an interview with Collision Repair magazine she explained what surprised administrators about the barriers that existed in terms of getting local women trained in skilled trades.

“We did some research before we wrote up the proposal. What we found was surprising. The barriers these women faced to getting this training were relatively small. They couldn’t afford $200 for books, or tuition, or maybe a bus pass. We realized that if we could help take down these small barriers, if we could take the barriers away, they could come in,” says Darling.

The program helps out with things like tuition, textbooks, mandatory program tools and personal protective equipment. “We can help that person who might need a bus pass. We can help with books, tools. In this way, the program takes some of the risk out of the process for the students,” says Darling.

Doing so has created a flood of demand for the Women in Trades program. Today, says Darling, the classes are half filled with women. The Women in Trades Training (WITT) program is funded through the Canada-British Columbia Job Fund Agreement.

“There are a few other programs like this in Canada, but they haven’t trained as many overall as we have,” says Darling.

Over it seven-year history, the program has trained 850 women in different skilled trades. The original impetus for the program was the same challenge many shop owners face today.

“The beginning of this program was driven out of the demand for skilled trades workers,” says Darling. “We realized we had to look beyond our traditional leaner, which, when it came to trades was typically a Caucasian male. If we’re going to fill these spots we had to reach out.”

The women in the region have proven they’re ready to get their hands dirty, especially if it means a better quality of life and a new level of economic self-sufficiency.

“People always ask this, ‘Why do they want skilled trade jobs?’ I tell them for the same reason males do. It’s rewarding work. It pays well. You get respect for your skills,” says Darling.

There is a fairly strict set of criteria on who can come in. The program works with women who have had multiple barriers to employment. Employed individuals who are low skilled or do not have a high school diploma or a recognized certification, or who have been assessed with low levels of literacy and essential skills, will be welcomed into the program.

“Many of these girls have struggled and are lacking skills. Many don’t have a lot of skills to put on a resume. Or else they lack certification. This helps them move up. It helps them get into the job market,” says Darling.

For those not familiar with the lay of the skilled trades land there is an introductory program to help new students which skilled trade is right for them. Participants begin in the classroom, learning safety and best practices for the shop and job site. Then they rotate through six different trades so that they can see what they like.

“They try everything, Plumbing, electrical, carpentry, joinery. They get to try some welding and sheet metal. I just heard from our marketing recruiter that, during the past week, we had a woman come in who wanted to get in into the program and mentioned that she was interested in collision repair. She said she sees a lot of help wanted ads from the two auto body shops in town. She took the initiative to come over and talk to us,” says Darling.

Shop owners looking for talent should be looking to the alumna of Okanagan. “We’ve got a great model that breaks down the barriers and let in this flood. We’ve got figured it out, this winning model. We’ve got to keep with it,” says Darling.

This year there are another 110 women in the program. “There does seem to be demand for auto body. We’re training them as fast as we can,” she says.

For more information on Okanagan College, please visit okanagan.bc.ca.

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