November 4, 2015
By Paul Forsyth
NIAGARA FALLS — Jamie McMillan asked the 200 high school girls gathered in a ballroom at the Hilton Fallsview hotel in Niagara Falls how many would like to earn $1,000 a week.
Many hands went up.
“If you’d like to earn $2,000 a week, raise two hands,” she told the crowd on Tuesday. A lot more hands went up.
“If you’d like to earn $3,000 to $8,000 a week, stand up,” she said. Every single girl rose from their seats.
McMillan, a certified welder and ironworker from Hamilton who just recently also became an industrial boilmaker, was keynote speaker at the District School Board of Niagara’s third annual Empowering Young Women conference.
McMillan and other mentors in sectors such as motive power that includes the automotive and aerospace industries, construction, hospitality, industrial, construction and horticulture spent the day with girls from nearly 20 DSBN high schools from across Niagara, encouraging them to consider careers in skilled trades.
Along with healthy paycheques, skilled tradespeople are increasingly in demand: Skills Ontario said more than 400,000 skilled workers will retire in the next 15 years, creating a massive need for young blood.
McMillan told the girls it’s just about good money: as a contract worker, she gets to pick and choose where and when she works. She’s worked in gas plants in Alberta and potash mines in Saskatoon.
“There’s a vast amount of kickass jobs in construction,” she said. “A kickass career means a kickass life.”
Last summer, while working in Alberta she’d knock off at the end of the day and climb the Rocky Mountains and drink water from glaciers thousands of years old.
“I got to do several things on my bucket list,” she said.
Just because they’re not as physically strong as boys, McMillan urged the girls to not turn their backs on skilled trades.
“We work smarter, not harder,” she said. “We’re detail oriented and patient. We’re meticulous.
“Women make the best welders.”
McMillan, who was toiling as a part-time personal support worker in a nursing home and a part-time job as a waitress in a sports bar before hearing about the opportunities the trades offer in 2002, said after her presentation that she hoped some of the girls will be inspired by her story.
“If I can change a life or make an impact on somebody, then I’ve done my job,” said the founder of the Journeyman organization.
John Sherk, with the DSBN tech team, said the conference funded by the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program wasn’t about trying to push young women into trades.
“It’s about exposing them to opportunities,” he said. “Don’t be stereotyped.”
Bringing in mentors at various stages of their careers puts a human face on the trades for the girls, he said.
“We can expose them to people who have been on that journey.”
McMillan, whose work can include welding high up on giant ship hulls or on massive industrial boiler systems, told the girls that being a trades journeyman is “a status, not a gender.”
Far from being a grim way of making a living, she said the trades can be a thrilling, lucrative career.
“My work has brought me across the country,” she said. “There is no limit to the things you can do in the construction industry.”