Jill of all trades

College camp introduces girls to construction career


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Senuri Weligamage is about to turn a slab of sheet metal into a steampunk-inspired lampshade.

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Senuri Weligamage is about to turn a slab of sheet metal into a steampunk-inspired lampshade.

The 12-year-old is at her work station during a bustling morning at Red River College Polytechnic’s sheet metal shop, where girls and gender-diverse students between the ages of 12 and 14 are hard at work.

“We’re going to add the lampshade to a lamp that we’re making. In woods, we’re making a box that connects it to our main project,” the first-time camper said. “It’s pretty fun. I’ve learned a lot of things.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Parc Richardson (centre left) and Marisa Zielinski work on metal lampshades at the Girls Exploring Trades and Technology camp at RRC Polytech in Winnipeg.

Today marks the third day of the college’s Girls Exploring Trades and Technology camp, which runs from July 4 to 7 and 11 to 14.

After a two-year hiatus, the free-of charge camps are back in person for the 16th year.

Guy Poirier, the chair of construction trades at the college, said they received 130 applications for 32 spots.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Senuri Weligamage at her work station at Red River College Polytechnic’s sheet metal shop. “It’s pretty fun. I’ve learned a lot of things,” she said.

Among those who got a coveted spot, the excitement and dedication are palpable.

“Every camper has been so interested and involved in what they’re doing. It’s been really cool, even to see the way they’re engaging,” Joshua Gacek, a carpentry instructor at the camp said.

In Manitoba, women account for just 6.1 per cent of trades, transport, equipment operators and related occupations, according to Statistics Canada. Poirier believes the camp is a small step toward changing that.

“We have all different types of backgrounds, from female instructors to welders, to transportation,” Poirier said. “It’s very important for them to see someone who has gone through it and hear their stories to say ‘I could do this.’”

Thirteen-year-old Marisa Zielinski and Parc Richardson are two of 16 participants in the first session. In the past three days, they’ve tried their hand at cabinetry, robotics, piping and other skilled trades.

“(On Tuesday), and what was probably my favourite thing, is we were able to control and code robots to follow specific lines,” Parc said.

Her parents had registered her for the course, and Marisa said she loves every minute of it.

“We’ve gotten to do spot welding, which you would do for autobody stuff, we’ve gotten to fit pipes together, we’ve gotten to build wooden boxes,” Marisa said. “It’s super awesome, and I can’t believe I’m here.”

Campers are a few years shy of being bombarded with the question of what they’re going to do when they grow up, early exposure sparks interest and confidence, Gacek said.

“When I left high school, I thought I was going to be a phys ed teacher. Nobody ever told me about going into the trades,” Gacek said. “So getting the younger generations spurred on quickly, they can start to decide for their future what they want to do.”

Although the sheet metal workshop is led by predominantly male instructors, Marisa and Parc hope to see a more diverse range of tradespeople represented in the future.

“When you think of the trades, you don’t think of a bunch of different people of different genders working together,” Marisa said. “Most of the instructors we’ve had in this camp are males, so I think that for the next generation of people in this camp, shouldn’t at least 50 per cent of the instructors be female?”

“If you only have one demographic of people working on a thing, then it’s going to be a more narrow view of it. If you have a bunch of different people, those views, ideas and other things can be expanded and it can become more accepting and progressive,” Parc said.


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