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Supply & Demand: The politics of Newfoundland and Labrador’s labour ‘shortage’

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In this 4-part series, The Independent looks under the surface of the rhetoric to piece together a series of snapshots of the shifting terrain of the labour market in Newfoundland and Labrador. We unpack the ‘labour shortage’ and look at the debates arising among policy-makers over how to deal with it. We look at the situation facing women in the workforce, and the growing use of immigration and temporary foreign workers to meet labour gaps. We look at the uneven distribution of benefits, and the mismatches between skills, supply and demand that can occur in the very uncertain art of labour market prediction. Our aim is to be neither accuser nor cheerleader, but to help provide the background to fuel public debate on how Newfoundland and Labrador should proceed in meeting the needs of our province in the 21st century…

We begin with a look at the situation facing women in the trades…

(Note: the names of apprentices in this story have been changed to protect their identities. All other names are accurate.)

Part 1: “There’s always work…but nobody willing to hire”

From the time she first saw one on television, Jennifer had a single passion: to become a welder.

“I always thought it looked cool,” she recalls. “And when I got to try it…I loved it.”

Jennifer did her welder’s training at first opportunity. She had perfect attendance, and graduated in June 2008 at the top of her class. And then she started looking for work.

But she didn’t find it. After phoning employer after employer, some of them finally advised her that she’d have a better chance if she waited until April, when they’d be doing large-scale hirings. But sitting around unemployed wasn’t in Jennifer’s nature.

“I figured rather than sit on my hands, I’d learn another trade,” she said. And so she went back to school, this time completing a course in pipefitting. “I figured I needed something to set me apart from everybody else. I figured that would give me an edge.”

In August 2009, she graduated again and, now armed with top marks in two trades, she headed out to find work.

“From there it was really sad,” she recalls. “I had really high expectations, I figured there would be lots of offers, especially having two trades. The problem wasn’t just getting work, it was getting an interview. I never even got a call back. Even though I’m eligible for a wage subsidy. I had impeccable attendance, impeccable marks, my teachers speak very highly of me. Everybody I’ve come across says my welding skills are at an amazing level despite my early year. Despite over 200 resumes I’ve sent out, I haven’t even got a call. I even offered a few companies to volunteer for them, just to prove myself. It’s not just that the work isn’t there, it’s they won’t give you an opportunity to even show yourself.”

“It’s not just that the work isn’t there, it’s they won’t give you an opportunity to even show yourself.” —Jennifer

Jennifer’s story is not an isolated one. Nor is it confined to just one trade.

Tanya went to university after high school, graduating from MUN with an English degree. At the age of 30, unemployed and facing a large student debt, her mother convinced her to follow in her father’s footsteps and learn a trade. She graduated from an electrical instrumentation program in 2009. Today, she’s gainfully employed in her field.

In Alberta.

Kendra graduated from an electrician program in 2009. She started looking for work almost two years ago. And she’s still looking.

“It’s not for my lack of applying. I went to every company in St. John’s, I even applied in Alberta. I applied many times to each company. Every time they said they weren’t hiring, but then a week later they hired a guy. It’s really frustrating being a girl.”

“I’ve been looking since I graduated. I’ve never worked a day in my trade. It’s pretty sad.”

Stereotypes and support networks

New graduates in the trades – they’re referred to as ‘pre-apprentices’ until they get their first employment, at which point they become ‘apprentices’ – face a range of barriers, whether they’re male or female: a shortage of certified journeypersons to supervise apprentices, companies that prefer to hire more experienced workers rather than take a chance on a new graduate, and companies that conduct frequent lay-offs when particular project phases are finished (thus making it difficult for new apprentices to log the work experience hours they need to move up to the rank of journeyperson).

But there are other barriers that only women face.

“Honestly, I think society has this thing where they just assume a woman can’t do a job,” Jennifer explained. “They won’t even take a chance on them. They just don’t think a woman can handle something a man can do. I can’t figure it out…from what I can gather, women are actually better welders, but a lot of these companies are just ran by older people…I think it’s also a matter of a little bit of pride. They don’t even want to give women a chance to prove themselves. I think they feel threatened. It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s just that society has this traditional outlook.”

One of the problems is that expectations are directed differently toward women, and the mentorship networks that men are able to fit into are often unwelcoming to women.

“When a guy goes to a workplace, even if they’re not a perfect welder other people will take them under their wing, show them the ropes, but if you’re a woman you’re expected to be perfect, and if you’re not, the employers are just looking for that,” Jennifer explained.

“When I was on my workterm I was doing some welding on a piece of machinery, and one of the guys told me the exact type of weld you had to do. I did exactly what he told me, and this pipefitter came along, he was quite rude, and he said “Why is she doing it this way, that’s what happens when you let a woman do a man’s job!” That caused quite a confrontation.”

“A lot of places are looking for an excuse, and if a girl makes a mistake they’ll all laugh and gang up on her instead of take her under their wing. There’s a lot more leniency when it comes to guys. Things are tolerated more with a guy. They’ll laugh if a guy is drunk and doesn’t show up to work if he’s hungover. They’ll say ‘oh he’s young, that’s fine’. But if a woman calls in sick she’s not dependable.”

Barriers right from the start

When Jennifer did her workterm at a local company, she was put on a seniority list to give her a bit of an edge over other new graduates when applying to that company for work. She was so eager to work there, that when she graduated she brought copies of her resume down and gave them to three different offices in the company’s HR department, to make sure she was covered. A few months later, she discovered that some of the men in the graduating class that came after hers had been hired there. She phoned the company, to ask why she hadn’t been called for an interview. She was told they didn’t have her resume on file. Perplexed, she brought more copies of her resume down that very same day, submitting them to multiple HR officers again. A few months later, she discovered that more men who’d graduated after her were being hired. She phoned to ask why. She was told they didn’t have her resume on file. She confronted one of the HR officers about it.

“I said to him: ‘This is ridiculous. I gave you three copies of my resume, and then I brought down two more. Are you sure it’s got nothing to do with my being female?’ And he got quite upset.”

In Kendra’s case, one of the men at a company she applied to was quite frank about her negligible chances of getting hired.

“It’s a distraction to the men, I was told by one company I applied to. I mean really – we all have coveralls! I don’t know, I’m getting fed up. I think it’s just here. I know in Alberta they’ll hire you as long as you’re living up there, they’ll hire anyone. Around here, it’s pretty much who you know, not what you know. I graduated here with honours and guys who just passed are getting jobs.”

“Around here, it’s pretty much who you know, not what you know. I graduated here with honours and guys who just passed are getting jobs.” —Jennifer

Tanya managed to get a job in Alberta, but she’s well aware of the difficulty many women face.

“It depends on who’s doing the hiring,” she explained. “If you have a bunch of guys in the hiring department and they don’t want women there, they’re not going to hire women.”

When she got hired, a friend of hers proudly told her that he was the reason she got the job. She corrected him, saying that she appreciated him putting in a good word, but that she got the job because of her resume and ability.

“He said no, I did [get you the job]!,They don’t hire women here, and they didn’t want to hire you. The only other woman employee is a woman from Africa and they hired her because they didn’t know from her name that she was a woman. They thought she was a man.”

Getting hired isn’t the only barrier women face.

“I worked with a girl who was sexually assaulted by one of our lead hands in our department,” Tanya explains. “There was a guy who was fired for sexually harassing me. It’s quite common. . some people put up with it and some don’t.”

Whether or not the company has a strong anti-harassment policy, the decision about whether to report harassment is a difficult one. For many women, it’s a case of damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t.

“It’s a double edged sword. Even if you don’t put up with it, and shit hits the fan, then you’re labeled as a troublemaker and word gets around. I’m sure there’s some jobs I’ll never get hired for now. You gotta be tough…if something goes that far and you bring it to management, they’ll do something about it for you. But now everybody in the trade knows that that happened. And that’s rough. And then rumours start, people say she shouldn’t be here because she’s too sensitive, it turns into a rumour mill.”

“It’s this negative mentality. Guys are disrespectful, you gotta be extremely tough.”

Even when women do get hired, Tanya points out, sometimes they still face barriers in getting to practice their trade.

“A lot of the time when women come up here, instead of working in your trade, the supervision will try to get you to work in the office. And you’re basically a secretary. I had a female friend, they tried to give her only a percentage of her [logged apprentice] hours because she agreed to work in the office for them. She was put back in her apprenticeship and she had to fight for those extra hours. I’ve been hounded many times – ‘Do you want to work in the office? I need a little office girl.’ And it’s the worst thing you can do for your career. You can have a ticket in whatever trade, but you wind up doing payroll.”

Advancing women apprentices

Karen Walsh is quite familiar with the problems these women face. And she’s been hired by government to turn things around.

Two years ago the provincial government created the Office to Advance Women Apprentices, through a partnership with the Newfoundland and Labrador Regional Council of Carpenters, Millwrights and Allied Workers. The Office’s modest goal for its first year of existence was to get 20 women apprentices jobs. The goal for the second year was 35 jobs. In that time, they’ve gotten over a hundred women apprentices jobs.

“It was a shock to the system for new employers when females showed up in non-traditional trades,” —Karen Walsh

“It was a shock to the system for new employers when females showed up in non-traditional trades,” explains Walsh. “The females were a minority coming into this field…The government said this is a minority so we need to create an outlet that will assist this minority in achieving their goals.”

The three employees at the office have been working tirelessly since then to assist the hundreds of women that have approached their office. They work proactively, too. Every year they tour the province, giving presentations to employers, workers, students, and the general public. They meet with any woman who approaches them, and help them try to figure out the best way to tackle the particular challenge she’s facing, whether it’s harassment problems in the workplace, or just getting that first interview. Other times it’s the employers who call them, asking about how they can get more women in their workplace. They work with employers to design policies and strategies, they design diversity and gender awareness components for some of the educational institutes, and they even go to workplaces to meet with the women and men working there and help try to ensure things are going smoothly.

“I was contacted by one local company that had been around for 53 years, they had 52 males but no female on site,” she recalls. “There were females in the office, but not on the ground doing the work.”

The company said they realized this was a problem, but didn’t really know what to do to fix it. Walsh told them she had hundreds of women on file just ready to start work. The company said they were worried how it would go over with the men, so Walsh offered to provide the men with some training to deal with misperceptions and help show them how a respectful workplace should operate. The HR officer was hesitant.

“She didn’t want a pile of stats and a pile of pie-charts. These are guys that are out in the field every day, she said, and I can’t just drop women in there. So at 9:00am Monday morning I met with all 52 men, and just talked to them about the changes in the workforce, about the labour market shortage, I said when females decide to go into these kinds of trades, the first thing they have to have is confidence in their skills and their ability.”

She gave the men examples of situations, and explained to them how easy it was for women to be isolated and left out from breaks and after work socials. She explained how some women might feel hesitant to ask for help.

It’s a lot of work for an office of three people; she said none of them would be able to keep it up if it wasn’t so important, and if the successes weren’t so rewarding. Despite stubbornly traditional attitudes among some employers, they’ve had significant success matching other more open employers with the female apprentices who come to them. The provincial government’s contribution for wage subsidies for women apprentices (90% for first-years, 80% for second-years and 60% for third- and fourth-years) provides a strong incentive for employers.

“So is there room for improvement and growth? Yes always. Have we come a long way in 2 years? Yes we have. I really think this is the start of it and we can only go forward from here. In the past two years, diversity is really starting to sprout.”

Carrots…and sticks?

Some companies are catching on too. EllisDon, a large Canadian construction and project management company which recently opened an office in St. John’s, requires mandatory sexual harassment training for all its employees.

“We don’t tolerate any harassment on our job sites,” said a spokesperson. “We’re an equal opportunity employer, and our safe work policies and procedures are something we take very seriously. For a new employee, one of the first things we do is sexual harassment training, it’s very extensive, and we do it for every single employee…EllisDon is trying to recruit more women. In the construction industry in general there’s not enough representation.”

EllisDon, which is currently constructing a new residence for Memorial University, hires and coordinates subcontractors that do the project work. Zero tolerance for harassment extends to all subcontracting companies too, the company said.

Some women feel the government should offer not only incentives, but penalties too, to help women break into the workforce.

“I think every company should have to have a few women working with them. I think every company should have to have some women.” —Kendra

“I think every company should have to have a few women working with them,” Kendra said. “I think every company should have to have some women. With the wage subsidy [for hiring women apprentices] I thought it would help a lot. But it’s not enough.”

Jennifer agrees.

“I really think there needs to be some enforcement. Equality in trades will never be a reality unless there’s some kind of enforcement or fines. If you tell people they should do something, they often won’t, even if you give them incentives. But if you say you’ll get a $500 fine, and you go around enforcing it…that’s different.”

The notion of establishing minimum targets for women’s employment is slowly starting to become a reality. The provincial government has begun requiring large resource development projects to develop action plans and set targets for gender diversity in the workforce. Vale Inco, for instance, developed a Women’s Employment Plan for its operations in Labrador: a target of 15% women was set (and the company reports it achieved 17%). At Argentia, it set a target of 20% female participation and reports that it achieved 35-38%.

For the most recent project at Long Harbour, it developed an 18-page Women’s Employment Plan. That plan commits it to reaching a minimum target of 3% women’s employment in apprentice positions during the construction phase. It set an additional target of 10% women in design and engineering occupations, and 25% women in the overall worksite (these are minimum targets). It also establishes a variety of other commitments: zero tolerance for harassment, mandatory gender sensitivity training for all construction workers, and also the significant step of requiring conformity (and in some cases, the development of additional women’s employment plans) from its sub-contracting firms. The company also commits to supporting (financially as well as through direct participation) school-based initiatives, from grade school to high school, to promote women pursuing the trades.

Linda Ross, President of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, notes that requiring companies to develop gender diversity plans and set targets demonstrates the important role government can play in ensuring industry plays its part in trying to break through the traditional male bias in the skilled trades.

“It’s relatively new…there was always this commitment to diversity, i.e. White Rose, but it didn’t work. With the idea of saying women should be included, it’s one thing to say it, but if you don’t have a big stick, or mechanism to hold one accountable, then as we all know it doesn’t happen. So the government made the decision they were going to have women’s employment plans embedded in the contract. I think with each subsequent agreement they’re learning more about what should be in women’s employment plans.”

She noted that it’s not good enough just to set targets: they must be specific enough to ensure the women do not wind up being hired only in traditional roles . She also noted that seniority arrangements can often negatively affect women, as women have only recently begun making breakthroughs in many industries.

“The other piece that’s a big concern for me is the longevity of the women in these positions. If they’re hired on, you want to think that they’re hired on and able to continue in the jobs, not that they’re hired on and then the first ones to be let go. You want them to know that there’s real careers for them.”

But above all, she said, the real test will be monitoring companies’ compliance with the agreements.

“One of the things that’s going to be the test is the evaluation and the reporting…how do you ensure that industry really does comply and move forward on this? It’s like a contract, they sign on to it, but what if they don’t achieve it? I think it’ll be really important once they start to have the public reporting, to ask the questions about what’s working and what’s not working.”

Stirrings of change?

But in the end, Jennifer, Kendra, and hundreds of women like them have yet to work a single day at the trade they’ve been trained in. Jennifer’s taken a job as an administrative assistant to pay her bills, but she still dreams of being able to work in one of her two trades. Yet the fact women often have longer periods of unemployment on their resumes, she notes, sets up a vicious cycle where employers become hesitant to hire them because they’re worried there’s something wrong with them.

One of the things that needs to change, they said, is the lack of education and awareness. Despite the work of the OAWA, they don’t have the resources to reach everybody. And that, Tanya says, is a problem.

“A lot of guys are just being selfish, either they have no idea or they don’t give a shit.” —Tanya

“I think that for these individual contractors – not the big oil and gas companies – there needs to be training and awareness, you gotta bring in a female speaker to say what it’s like for women in these camps. A lot of guys are just being selfish, either they have no idea or they don’t give a shit. When people go from a regular worker into a management position, they need to be made more aware of what’s expected of them in a management position. It’s easy to preach one thing but do another.”

Some of the unions have also been proactive in trying to see diversity issues raised in the classroom. The Carpenters Millwrights Union, which operates a training college, conducts diversity and respectful workplace components in its training courses. However, graduates of other institutes – particularly private colleges – said there was no discussion of these issues in their courses.

“In College, nobody talks about it,” said Tanya. “It’s not talked about anywhere. So I don’t breathe a word about any issues of that nature I’ve had to any of my coworkers. The way you keep your job is by keeping your head low and not making trouble. You start talking about stuff like that and you get laid off.”

The idea of imposing mandatory quotas on a larger scale, or penalizing companies that fail to meet them, is a fairly new part of the policy discussion. But women like Jennifer and Kendra feel it’s about time that something more was done.

“When I came out of school, I was motivated,” sighs Jennifer. “I said I might be a woman but I want my piece of the pie too. I was really excited about it, I thought about my future, the money I could make, the nice things I could have. But now after putting out so many resumes, at first you’re optimistic and in denial, but after passing out so many…the other day I looked at my boyfriend and cried and said I don’t ever think I’m going to be able to do my trade. It was as though I admitted defeat, and I never wanted to be defeated. It was something I put my heart and soul into, and to never have a chance to do it makes me cry.”

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