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Anything you can do: women shatter job stereotypes to feed workforce demand

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EDMONTON - Kolby Nepoose has had a lot of jobs at places that would probably sound familiar to many young women — grocery store, health-care centre, coffee shop, bank clerk.

Eventually, though, the lure of sitting at a desk began to pall.

"I just found my work really tedious, sitting at the computer all day," said Nepoose, 25.

So she found something different — way different. She now works at Mammoet, a Dutch multinational that builds and operates heavy lift and transport equipment. Nepoose — booted, hard-hatted and overalled — is working towards a journeyman's ticket as a crane operator.

"It exceeded my expectations," Nepoose said. "I love going home, peeling off my boots and sitting and relaxing and knowing that I'm tired from doing something."

Nepoose isn't the only woman at ease among the massive machines in Mammoet's vast Edmonton yard. And fresh census data released Tuesday suggests she'll have plenty more company in the years to come.

Statistics Canada reported an increase in the number of women aged 20 to 34 in most provinces and territories. In most regions, that increase manifested itself as a jump in the number of children aged four and under — a spike of 20.9 per cent in Alberta and 19.6 per cent in Saskatchewan.

But not all women are having children — and in a part of the country where there seem to be more jobs than workers, many are being lured into a workforce that needs all hands on deck, regardless of gender.

Workers like Nepoose are still rare: in 2007, only about two per cent of those employed in non-service sector trades were women. But those numbers are increasing.

Between 2000 and 2010, Alberta's female employment in trades increased 54 per cent. In Saskatchewan, the number of journeyman certificates granted to women in non-traditional jobs nearly doubled from 2009 to 2010, with 29 apprentices making the grade.

It's inevitable, said Krista Uggerslev, a labour force researcher at Edmonton's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Not only is the industrial labour force aging, demands on it are increasing through everything from shipbuilding booms on both coasts to resource development throughout Canada.

"(The labour shortage) is already here, it's going to be huge and it's going to last a really long time," Uggerslev said.

"What we're talking about in Alberta a lot now and in the Prairie provinces and across Canada is how we can make better use of different sources of workers. And those include women."

JudyLynn Archer is trying to be part of that solution. She leads an Edmonton organization called Women Building Futures, which offers pre-apprenticeship programs to introduce women to trades from carpentry to welding to pipefitting.

A total of 3,000 women contacted Women Building Futures last year looking for information on the trades. About 190 from across Canada are expected to graduate this year, almost all directly into jobs or apprenticeships.

"If we had 2,000 today, they could all be placed, working," Archer said. "The demand is unbelievable."

Women are fitting in just fine on job sites across the province, she added.

"(Companies) are very happy with their female employees. They show up every day, they have a strong attention to detail and they're more loyal."

Employers also tell Archer women are easier on heavy equipment — more vigilant with preventative maintenance and safety checks and gentler on the huge and hugely expensive tires the big stuff rolls on.

"They drive with less ego," said Archer.

Still, she said, employers are just starting to see women as part of the solution to Canada's coming shortage of skilled labour.

"I would love to say that everybody is different than it has been," she said. "It's about the same.

"The big difference is the pressure from the top. The leaders in the companies understand the terrible hole we're headed toward over the next eight years."

There are still barriers — some as simple as providing safety gear that fits women's bodies.

But one of the biggest is getting men and women to adjust workplace culture to accommodate each other. Every graduate of Women Building Futures attends a course on workplace culture, the unwritten rules of overwhelmingly male-dominated job sites.

"Oftentimes, women work in workplaces where if there's an issue, someone's going to take them aside into a separate room away from everyone else and have a discussion," Archer said.

"Out on the construction job site, if you screw up, someone is going to be taking you to task right there and then, in front of everybody, and there won't be any mincing of words. That's the stuff that causes women to leave the trades in droves."

Women Building Futures publishes a guide on how to retain female tradesworkers.

"Women have also been known to cry when feeling frustrated or under pressure," it reads.

"Women do not wish to shed tears on the job and, if it does happen, will feel embarrassed.... For a woman, tears are often a sign of frustration or fear of failure and nothing more. Give her a moment and she will get back to the job at hand."

Workplace culture isn't an issue for all women.

"It's a lot easier to get along with men," said Rene Jones, a 23-year-old crane operator at Mammoet, whose colleagues have nicknamed her Hercules Jr. for the amount of physical work she gets done with her slight frame.

"I said, 'Don't underestimate this little girl.'"

Nepoose agreed.

"I get teased a lot," she said. "I give it right back. I've opened up now, come out of my shell, so it's nothing but laughs."

Nepoose said she has no regrets, and misses her former pink-collar work not at all.

"I just felt like that wasn't a career. Now, it's a career."

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