In 2017, Kitchener Local 804 — a major construction local in southern Ontario — had eight women among its membership. Leadership decided that needed to be addressed. The local needed to give more people a chance at the life-changing impact of IBEW membership and help meet the need for skilled construction workers.
|Kitchener, Ontario, Local 804 training instructor Jessica Gemmell.
Brian Jacobs, now the business manager, was on staff as an organizer then. He's pleased to report that the number of women is growing — Local 804 now has 42 women working as members. And Jacobs is convinced that the number will grow at an even faster pace in the future after 13 joined in the past year alone.
"Construction has been a male-dominated profession for the most part from the beginning," said Jacobs, who has been business manager since February 2020. "It's a little intimidating for women to step into that world."
"But the reality is you're excluding 50% of the workforce. That's a whole bunch of untapped skill sets," he added. "Mark and I decided we needed to address that."
Jacobs was referring to Mark Watson, Local 804's previous business manager, who now serves as executive assistant to the First District International vice president.
Jacobs said Local 804's recruiting efforts largely have been targeted at high schools and trade colleges throughout its jurisdiction. He noted that the federal government's Union Training and Innovation Program provides financial incentives for recruiting historically underserved groups into the trades.
But a large part of Local 804's work is ensuring that women have the skills and support to succeed once they become members. That's why someone like Local 804 training instructor Jessica Gemmell is so important.
Gemmell has been around the IBEW for most of her life. Her father, two uncles and deceased grandfather are either past or current members. She graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa and joined the workforce before deciding to become an electrician and beginning her apprenticeship in 2012.
"You don't make a lot of money [with a political science degree]," she said. "I was struggling to find something that suited my lifestyle. I was looking for something that paid well and that had a pension with benefits."
Yet she's aware that many women interested in a career in the trades haven't been exposed to trade unions — not just as children, but as adults. That's why she enthusiastically agreed when Jacobs and other Local 804 leaders asked her to assist in such efforts.
"Sometimes you feel alone. You might be the only woman on a job site," said Gemmell, now a Red Seal electrician.
"But you're not alone. Most of Local 804's female members now have met me, and they know they can reach out to me," she said. "My advice is to stick with it and speak up. Ask questions and ask for more and different work. Don't get pigeonholed into doing one thing."
Growth does not come easily, and change is sometimes painstakingly slow. Local 804 has approximately 1,100 members, so female members still make up less than 4%.
But Jacobs said the local remains committed to the work and expects the numbers to grow at a faster pace as word spreads that it is welcome to applicants of all backgrounds and genders. The increased numbers in the past year may be proof of that.
"It's not just the right thing to do," he said. "It's also good for the economy. Our wages are fairly high in the grand scheme of things. Women in the workforce traditionally are not getting a chance to earn those wages, and that's not good for our economy."
He also credited the Electrical Contractors Association of Central Ontario for providing essential support, such as assisting with Local 804's application for UTIP funding.
"Our contractors have committed to putting every one of the graduates from our pre-apprenticeship program to work, which has been the primary avenue for women entering the electrical trade at Local 804," Jacobs said.
Local 804 recently began a women's committee. Much of its work will involve experienced female electricians mentoring women new to the job, Jacobs said. He added that women who Local 804 has accepted into its apprenticeship have proven on the job and in the classroom to be as qualified as their male colleagues.
Plenty of work remains, but Gemmell is optimistic. She cites as one example of progress that many men feel empowered on the job to speak up when they see or hear someone acting inappropriately toward a co-worker.
"I've always had a good support system, not just from my family members, but my brothers in the local," she said. "They saw how hard I was working on the job. They realized that 'If she can do the job, anything is possible,' and it's just snowballed from there."