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Women under the hood

For years, we have been facing a skilled trades labour shortage in Canada, and particularly in Ontario: by 2025, the Ontario government reports, this province will be short 1.2 million tradespeople.

Compounding this labour shortage problem is the fact that the skilled trades continues to be a male-dominated domain, meaning it’s largely missing out on contributions that could be made by the other sex.

One noteworthy initiative that may help address at least one skilled trades employment area is the Pre-apprenticeship program for Women — Automotive Service Technician (AST).

The two-year-old program, which is offered at Toronto’s Centennial College and, thanks to government funding, is completely free, is the first and only AST pre-apprenticeship program in Canada geared specifically towards women.

“Only 4% to 5% of automotive service technicians in Ontario are women, so instead of doing training the traditional way, we’re taking a different approach to help bring more women into the trade,” says Mike McGraw, co-ordinator of AST and truck and coach pre-apprenticeship programs at Centennial.

As an instructor in both the all-female and mixed-sex AST pre-apprenticeship programs, McGraw sees the benefit to women participating in the former program.

“The comfort level goes up in that they feel they can ask more questions. They tend to be more vocal and they all seem to work together,” McGraw says.

A unique component of the 36-week full-time program is Busting the Barriers/Career Readiness Training, which focuses on how to penetrate and succeed in a field not typically populated by women. The training module deals with skills such as professional networking and leveraging career opportunities, offers training in self-defence, and emphasizes awareness of human rights and workplace harassment policy.

The component is part of the program’s initial 12-week Introductory Skills section, which also covers academic upgrading in English and math, job search skills, safety, tools and basic vehicle training.

Automotive Service Technician—Level 1 takes place over the next 12 weeks, featuring hands-on instruction in workplace practices and procedures, engines, emissions, suspension, steering and brakes. The final 12 weeks is on-the-job experience at a placement partner, which includes Canadian Tire, Toyota and several independent shops.

“When they graduate, they’re going to be able to walk into an employment situation with confidence that they know what they’re doing,” McGraw says.

That’s certainly what Frances Newby hopes to achieve: the 33-year-old switched career gears this year, moving on from four years of working as a personal support worker to try to pursue a long-time passion.

“I’ve always had an interest in cars. I grew up working on cars with my dad, fixing mechanical parts or their bodies,” Newby says. “I also bought my first car last year, so I was even more interested in cars.”

The fact that the program is exclusively for women was particularly appealing to Newby.

“Given that this is such a male-oriented field, I felt it would be a little more comfortable being with other women who, like me, probably don’t have such a vast understanding of cars,” she says.

In August, Newby will begin her work placement, likely at a car dealership in her neighbourhood in Scarborough.

“The women in this trade are very few and far between, and I think women are unsure whether they can handle the physical part of the job. But I’ve learned that you don’t need to be a hulk, that there’s a lot of machinery to do the heavy lifting,” Newby says.

“I’ve always felt that there’s really nothing a man can do that I can’t do, and this program was a way for me to prove that to myself.”

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