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BCIT on a trades mission for women

Plumbing student Olivia Lowes welds a pipe assembly under the watchful eye of instructor Tamara Pongracz in BCIT
Plumbing student Olivia Lowes welds a pipe assembly under the watchful eye of instructor Tamara Pongracz in BCIT's Trades Discovery program for women.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Tamara Pongracz had just graduated from high school in the Kootenays when she took a year off and worked at a series of “typical girl jobs.”

She waited on tables, worked retail, and took care of kids in a daycare.

“The one thing all the jobs had in common was they all paid minimum wage,” Pongracz said.

That was in 1988, when minimum wage was about $4 an hour.

When the year was up, her dad, a plumber-pipefitter, told her it was time to get serious and head off to university. Meantime, he got her a summer job where he worked as a foreman, at Teck Cominco.

She worked as a welder’s helper. It paid $18 an hour.

“I was sold.”

Pongracz went on to become a certified plumber herself, and worked 10 years in the business before becoming chief instructor in the Trades Discovery for Women program at B.C. Institute of Technology.

“It wasn’t only the monetary rewards but being able to see the product of my labour, learning how to use the tools and equipment.

“And I didn’t have to worry what to wear to work,” she added with a laugh.

Women make up only about three to four per cent of all tradespeople in Canada.  Running since 1995, Trades Discovery for Women, one of the longest continuously running such programs in the country, aims to change that.

Breaking stereotypes

Not strong enough. Just looking for a husband. They’re gay.

Those were among the stereotypes Pongracz and other women had to overcome when entering the trades more than 20 years ago.

“I actually had a woman employer say, ‘I don’t want a woman because she’d only distract the guys,’” she recalled, rolling her eyes.

“We call it the ‘queen bee syndrome’—you only want one queen bee in the hive.”

Pongracz, 41, stressed that a good employer will see people’s strengths and find a place for them to fit in. She might not have been as strong as many of her male co-workers, but she was small enough to work inside large pipes where bigger or claustrophobic pipefitters couldn’t.

She worked with guys who were afraid of heights. She wasn’t.

She even recalls helping a fellow with a bad back put on his workboots.

In her 10 years as a plumber, she figures she only saw one or two other women on job sites, and they were usually working as a first aid attendant or an estimator.

Today, when she visits her students on job sites, there are at least two or three women working as tradespersons or apprentices, in all fields.

Diversifying skills

Tammy Kennedy grew up on a farm in northern B.C. so always had skills as a landscaper. When she moved to the city, she did clerical work as a corporate records keeper at a law firm. And when she stopped working to stay home with her and her husband’s four kids, she honed her homemaking skills.

Six years ago, when she started looking for work again—a daunting task in itself after 12 years away from the workforce—she got a job as an exhibit preparator at Burnaby Village Museum doing Christmas wreath displays.

The job has certainly drawn on her homemaking skills, such as in the costume department and when homemade canned goods have been needed for displays.

But Kennedy, 43, saw the potential for doing more. That’s how she found herself enrolling in the 16-week Trades Discovery for Women program.

The Burnaby resident discovered she enjoys woodworking so she went on to take a BCIT program in joinery (also known as cabinetmaking).

Even the basic trades skills she learned in the program have proved useful.

“It’s opened the door to other departments,” she said of her museum job. She’s now called on to work in the grounds department, helping with landscaping, in maintenance and even in conservation, where she’s helped install tile and maintain the village’s heritage homes.

Last Christmas she even used her welding skills to produce a snowflake display for the museum’s roof. She now knows how to read and draw blueprints for projects.

“It gave me confidence,” she said of the program. “There’s no way I would’ve just walked into BCIT and taken a cabinetmaker program.”

She added with a laugh that much of what she’s learned has proven useful at home too, where she’s looks after repairs and renovations.

“My husband’s an IT guy. I’m the one that takes things apart and fixes things.”

‘It gave me confidence’

Back at BCIT, Pongracz—by the way—did eventually go to university, recently completing a masters degree in education at Simon Fraser University.

In her 15 years of teaching, she’s seen a change in her students’ backgrounds.

It used to be many were on Employment Insurance or social assistance, and their tuition was sponsored by government.

“A lot do look to trades because they’re looking for a career that pays a living wage, especially for single moms.”

About a quarter of the program’s students have been to college or university. Some were looking for a career change. Pongracz has had students that previously worked as a commercial pilot, registered nurse, even fashion designer.

In recent years, she’s seen more women in their early 20s looking for a career to sink their teeth into.

Julia Peters, 22, spent 18 months in college doing general studies before she decided to explore trades opportunities at BCIT.

“Psychology was sweet, but you can’t do anything with a psychology degree,” she said. “I can try this out and not have massive school debts.”

She likes working with her hands and is thinking of a career in HVAC refrigeration, which requires a combination of electrical, plumbing and mechanical skills.

The program showed her there’s far more to trades than just carpentry, plumbing and electrical.

Indeed, Pongracz’s students have gone on to work as everything from boilermakers and ironworkers to pile-drivers and welders.

She said in recent years she’s noticed the role of women in trades has evolved—in a good way.

BCIT has a similar program introducing the trades for men. Pongracz said some of those students’ classes are taught by female tradespeople, so the men get used to the idea of working with women.

And when her students return from work studies at local companies and job sites, she always asks how they were treated.

“They say, ‘They kind of treated me as if I was someone’s daughter.’ That’s probably how you want to be treated, respected but not coddled, like they’re looking out for you.”

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

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