What is a millwright?
Even I did not know.
It was a “boy” job
So I didn’t care.
Till after university
I wanted a “boy” job.
One that fixed things
Instead of fixing people.
Because people hurt me
I needed the fixing, now.
So I set out on my path
To become a millwright.
Arranging an interview
I met with the Dean.
Dean of Tech and Skilled Trades
I asked every question that I could.
“Can women be millwrights?”
“What do millwrights do?”
“Is it physically challenging?”
“I am small, can I do it?”
“I’m not good at math,”
“Do you teach this?”
“Yes, lots, yes, that’s okay!”
“We will teach you everything.”
So, I applied that evening
Started in September 2013.
Half-way through first semester
We were told to apply for co-op.
I was still very green and shy
So I applied where Dad worked.
My father was a steelworker
For 41 years up until Mom died.
At the time she was alive
She was so proud of me.
“My little steelworker!”
“Be careful, though, Kaila.”
To my surprise they hired me on
After three interviews and a physical.
My grades and proficiency sufficed
My inexperience opportunity to learn.
They could teach me
They have taught me.
On my very first day
I nearly shit my pants.
I only saw big guys
No women anywhere.
“Oh, I fucked up good.” I thought
Till the guys introduced themselves.
They were so wonderful
They are still wonderful.
Seven years later
We are still family.
Back in those days
I did not know much.
Bolts, nuts, all fasteners
Everything intimidated me.
I was used to writing essays
Not pulling on wrenches.
I was used to words
I was used to makeup
Not sweat, blood and tears.
I was used to failing
This propelled that.
And then one day
It all came together.
Bearings were familiar
Micrometers easy to read.
Inches, feet or micro-measurements
I was beginning to understand everything.
From preventative maintenance
To routine breakdown work.
Then one day
I became pregnant.
Using an angle grinder then
Caused me a new type of panic.
“Um. This freaks me out lol.”
“What if I miss and hit myself?”
Before, I didn’t care
Then, I really cared.
So I applied as a planner
To work in the offices.
I work on a computer planning mechanical trade work
Using a computerized maintenance management system.
Combining my university-honed writing skills
With my college-honed mechanical ones.
A well-earned career in skilled trades
After nearly a decade of post-secondary.
If I make it look easy
My sincerest apologies.
It is hard work
But very worth it.
Before I was a millwright
I worked as a cosmetician.
Before that, in retail and food
Been working since sixteen.
The career that I forged today
Is a result of many yesterdays.
A result of immense failure
That steered me toward success.
I did not know math
I know math well now.
I did not know trade terms
I can speak fluently now.
I work in steel manufacturing
It is the only environment I know.
I know food plants are cleaner
I know car plants are smaller.
Other than that
I only know steel.
I see molten steel poured into ladles
Or watch them grind up the ore pellets.
I see additives
I see fallacies.
I see breakdowns and shutdowns
I see routine maintenance or shop work.
Tools are tools.
Bearings are bearings
Couplings are couplings.
Where can you start?
What do you like to do?
Do you like working with your hands?
Seeing a job from start to finish?
Watching your equipment live on the line?
Knowing your hands fixed that part?
Knowing you assembled that pump yourself?
Over a span of a couple weeks with a mentor?
The job itself is rewarding enough
Let me tell you about the guys.
For context, I am ultra feminine
This did hurt me a little at first.
People were not used to women there
I didn’t know anything and that didn’t help.
Some people were affronted
But most people were helpful.
I found the guys that would help me
The ones willing to teach a small girl.
The mentors who thrust me directly into work
Are the mentors I value the most for experience.
They were tough
But so gentle, too.
They had wives and mamas and daughters
They said I reminded them of those girls.
“How cool that you’d want to learn!”
Those are the guys that I vibe with.
Nearly a decade in industry now
The guys are still fucking amazing.
Helping out whenever required
Being my strong hand when need be.
I can fit into small spaces
I can manipulate small parts.
My petite frame an advantage
Whereas I didn’t think so at first.
There are two fears that I harbored
That I had to overcome over time.
The first is apprehension
Worrying about perception.
“Why is he staring? What am I doing wrong?”
It took me a long time to build confidence.
The second fear is preconceived notions
I thought the big, scary guys were terrifying.
The guys at work are the ones
Who removed my preconceptions.
The big guys with soft hearts
Wanting to work just like me.
The small guys with big minds
Teaching me all that they know.
At first I had shaved my hair off
Thinking it would make me fit in.
I looked masculine and it was great
But I felt like I was masking myself.
So I grew my hair and my confidence
Until it worked out and now we’re here.
It takes time
Give yourself time.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
Shit can’t be learned overnight.
Rome was eventually built
And I eventually learned.
I’m still learning, too
The beauty of skilled trades.
Always advancing, intertwining technology
To make ourselves efficient and stronger tomorrow.
Now, what exactly does a millwright do?
On the floor or up in the office where I work?
On the floor they do all sorts of things
Typically removing and installing machinery.
Pumps, cylinders and motors
Are the most commonly changed.
We rebuild those things too
Electricians do motors, though.
Millwrights are mechanical
Electricians are electrical.
Electricians do the wiring
Millwrights do the install.
Let us install a motor in theory
Say the motor has four feet.
First, electricians disconnect it
Then we remove the fasteners.
Then, we rig the motor up and out
Sending it over to the shop for repair.
In its place goes a new one
Ready to be started up.
Electricians re-wire the new one
We make sure the motor is aligned.
Operations push the start button
And we all hold our breath…lol.
Just like that, a new motor is installed
And we have effectively worked as a team.
There are isolations and restorations
There is so much knowledge to know.
But this knowledge keeps you safe
It is not meant to overwhelm you.
Take it day by day
They will teach you.
In school you’ll learn the basics
The foundation that you’ll need.
Working the field will gain proficiency
That is where you’ll become a tradesman.
We also write an exam in Ontario
To license us as industrial mechanics.
It is called the Red Seal Exam
There are requirements to write.
Graduate school, 8000 hours of work experience
That equals to about four years of working in trade.
You must have a competency book signed
Completing that was the bane of my existence.
Then one day, my book was signed
And I stared at it for an hour in awe.
“Four years to work, yeah okay!”
Did I mention you get paid?
Yes, you are really paid to learn
Apprentices make good income!
I was a well-paid apprentice
Getting paid to gain skills.
To become hired on full-time
Was a bit more extensive.
Good grades, graduation, interviews and a physical
Were all required to work at the company that I do.
The physical was the most challenging
Because it was originally designed for men.
The heavy lifting a requirement
Due to the nature of work.
It took three times to pass
I wouldn’t change a thing.
I could have chosen a daintier industry
I wanted to work there like my dad did.
So I worked out for the first time in my life
Gained muscle and tried the physical again.
The third try, my final attempt, I got it
I lifted the goddamn weight and passed.
“Would you ever try to change that?”
Hell to the no, absolutely I wouldn’t!
Physical strength is a requirement
It is a physically laborious job.
This pertains to steel industry millwrighting only
It is the only industry I am familiar with as a tradesman.
We must fit in fall-arrest equipment to keep safe
And physically do the work we are tasked to do.
Working a welder or angle grinder on the shop floor
Are the least of the worries during daily maintenance.
It’s those fasteners that are super rotted or stuck
The ones where you can’t get an extender bar in.
Or when your toolbox is heavy as hell going up stairs
Those are the days that passing the physical matters.
If you want to be a tradesman and not do that
Then go ahead and choose the electrician trade lol.
Yes, that’s a dig to electricians!
Millwrights rule, electricians drool!
Trade humor is also fun
When you can participate.
Well, I am off now
I have said a lot.
If you wish to learn more
Please don’t hesitate to ask.
It gives me something to write about!
Kaila A. Notto
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What is a millwright?