TIMMINS – Meaghan Portelance wants other women to know that the skilled trades industry isn’t just an Old Boys Club.
As one of three women listed among the best and brightest in Canadian metalworking in Metalworking Production and Purchasing Magazine’s Top 20 Under 40, Portelance has proven that that women can be extremely successful in the industry.
“It was out of the blue, but I’m proud of it,” said the Timmins welder, who works at The Bucket Shop/Steeltec in Timmins. “There were only three girls in the whole issue, so I think that’s cool, and it’s kind of big for me.”
Currently, women represent 5% of all the skilled trades workers in Canada, according to a Status-of-Women fact sheet produced by the Government of Canada. However, recent data suggests the number of women entering into the sector is increasing every year.
Portelance has noticed the shift firsthand.
When she attended Collège Boréal in Sudbury for her two-year Welding and Fitting program, she was the only female in her class. When she recently went back to teach an introductory welding course at Collège Boréal’s Timmins campus some years later, however, there were five women enrolled in the program.
She’s also noticed more women joining the staff at The Bucket Shop/Steeltec, a company that specializes in the manufacture and repair of scoop trams, excavators, loader and front shovel buckets and bulldozer blades.
“There are three other girls who work there, so it’s pretty awesome, and it’s getting more and more popular for women to get into,” she said.
Portelance has been happily working at The Bucket Shop/Steeltec for the past three years. She first became interested in trades work by tinkering around in the garage with her father growing up. After completing a welding project in high school, however, she really caught the welding bug and has been passionately honing her craft every since.
She said she loves having the ability to create something from scratch and takes a great deal of pride in the work that she does every day.
“It’s kind of like an art, I really enjoy it, ” she said. “When I make a bucket from scratch — I bend it, fit it, weld it, everything — at the end of it all I have a lot of pride in my work, and I think, ‘I made that, and now it’s going to go to the mine to shovel big rocks.’”
Waking up at 6 a.m. every morning and coming home covered in dirt and dust isn’t for everyone, but Portelance encourages more women to give it a try. Working in the trades offers job stability, good pay, variety of work, and endless opportunities for career advancement, she said.
There’s also less to worry about on the job than most women believe. Working in a male-dominated environment can be intimidating to some, but Portelance has experienced nothing but professionalism and support from her colleagues in the field.
“They worry about working with guys all the time but it’s not really that bad,” she said. “I just reassure them that if you love what you’re doing, and you’re good at it, then there’s no reason for you to feel intimidated.”
Although it can be nerve-wracking when first taking the plunge into the field (even Portelance was a bit nervous when she started at her first welding job in Ottawa) many of the men in the industry are willing to lend a helping hand.
The workplace environment isn’t so bad, either.
“They’re fun. They’re always singing and whistling, and they’re always jolly,” she said of her co-workers. “They all took me under their wings like big brothers or uncles, that’s how it feels, they’re very friendly, and I’ve had no problems.”
Her advice to women who want to get into welding or other skilled trades is to learn the craft before applying for a job. Whether it’s going to school or jumping into an apprenticeship, having a good foundation of knowledge will earn the respect of the other workers and make the work enjoyable.
She’s also taken on a mentorship role by working with other women who are interested in pursuing a career in the trades.
Recently, she attended the Skills Ontario Banquet at Northern College where she talked to high school girls who want to work in the trades. She said the experience of both talking to students about her career and teaching welding extremely rewarding because she gets to share her passion with others and help them develop new skills that they can use both in the workforce and in life.
“They came into the course not ever having welded before and at the end of the class they had a little project that they welded and it’s rewarding that you taught them something like that that,” Portelance said. “I hope more women get into it, I really do. I’m going to volunteer as often as I can at the high schools as a speaker, mentor, I really want to get it out there that if I can do it they can do it.”