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Skilled Trades

This is the section where you can find an overview of my experience as a female with a career in the skilled trades. I work as a Mechanical Maintenance Planner/Industrial Mechanic Millwright Apprentice for a successful steel manufacturing company in Hamilton, Ontario. I started at the company I work for as an co-op student. It was awesome because I got paid to learn.

I subsequently paid off my remaining university debt at the same time I paid for my college diploma using almost all of my co-op earnings. I graduated from Mohawk College with my Diploma in Industrial Manufacturing Engineering Technician – Automation in 2016. Before that, I studied Sociology at Brock University (Go Badgers Go!) where I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology in 2012.

I saw fellow graduates go the social worker route or apply to government jobs and some choose to do a masters degree. I decided to wait until I could decide and work for a year. I started to work when I was 16. I began to work in the mall I frequented called Eastgate Square where I pretty much worked part time for my entire student career. I worked everywhere from Wok Express (which is gone now) to the Shoppers Drug Mart as a Cosmetician, Ardene and for seven years, Tim Hortons! I enjoyed my jobs in the food and retail industries as a student.

I’d often ask the technicians that came in to fix our machinery if I could do some of the small tasks they did so that we didn’t have to call them to come down every time something required minor repair. I quickly learned a few little tricks and became handy with a screwdriver which prompted me to investigate a career using my hands and my fix-it skills. I Googled “What are skilled trades?” and “Millwright” peaked my interest the most.

Truthfully, I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t care, though, because I knew I was on the right path and I was starting to become excited! For context, I was always the “girly-girl” and the person whose favorite line growing up was “ew, that’s for boys”. You live and you learn…lol.

After my research, I made an appointment with the Dean of Mohawk College for Skilled Trades (at the time) and the first thing I asked him was: “Can women do this job?

I’ll never forget what he said. I think his name was Doug but I didn’t know our meeting was about to change my life. He said “Of course you can. In fact, we’re really looking to get women interested in the trades because you are too far and few in between.” He also gave me all the information I needed to apply and I was accepted for the upcoming semester. My parents were especially proud.

Now, I had taken a break in the middle of my university career on a whim to study at Niagara College. I took the “pre-health” program and was convinced that I was to be a nurse. That was a hard no. I was ready to faint at the mention of blood or human innards, which was basically everything and anything medical, lol, and had such a strong dislike for it that I quit during my first semester.I felt like a failure.

I ended up with my tail between my legs and going back to complete my degree at Brock University. Initially this is why I was hesitant to enter into a new program a second time, but this felt different. The first time I went to shop class I thought I was going to be set on fire, lol. My hands would sweat and my heart would race but I’d collect myself in the washroom with a pep talk and give it my all.

I asked my shop teacher with a group of other students guys standing around also trying to learn about how to sharpen a drill bit on a pedestal grinder: “Will the sparks hurt?” I saw the corners of several mouths turn upward with a smile. I knew I was going into this with a lot of questions so I took it upon myself to not care what others thought about my silly questions and asked whatever I had to. I’d have giggled at me too, lol.

I didn’t know at the time that these “sparks” were metal filament from the drill bit and wouldn’t hurt me. The other students and professors were very helpful and I still work with some of the guys I went to school with who got hired at the same time. Out of my entire graduating class there were 3 women including myself.

The other two girls were so smart. I was intimidated and jealous that they knew so much but I was also so grateful that they were nice and helped me learn so much. I didn’t know how to do math or what fluid power meant. I was use to writing essays and reading textbooks, not reading micrometers or verniers.

When I saw engineered drawings for a pump for the first time it looked like instructions for a space ship or an airplane. Then, the next thing I knew I was assisting in a fifteen-foot vertical turbine pump rebuild that had five impellers bigger than I am! Learning from the ground up felt like I was dropped in the middle of a different country that had a language, set of rules and understanding that I had ZERO perspective into.

I had to learn it all day by day and I think it is important to understand that one cannot learn a skilled trade overnight. It takes time, patience and effort to hone the skills you learn, but failure is a wonderful teacher when trying to learn. I’ve made all of the mistakes. I didn’t know the difference between a nut and a bolt or anything at all.

The tools I was used to were makeup tools! Now I use power tools like pneumatic impact guns and grinders – pedestal or hand held, and no, I’m not afraid of the “sparks” anymore lol – and I can wrench or weld when required. When I first started at the steel mill, again, I thought I was going to die. Google “steel-making” and you can imagine the shock of my delicate feminine self walking into a very masculine, fiery and loud steel-making plant. The horror! But then I actually talked to the guys and a couple of hours later I was fine. Plus, I had just gone through a week’s worth of safety training so I felt pretty confident in my new PPE – hard hat, safety boots and safety glasses! – and with my newfound safety knowledge.

Now, I spend most of the time in my office as a Mechanical Maintenance Planner for the part of the mill I work in. My career took a turn in the planning direction when I became pregnant with Mila and had to leave the mill floor to be as safe as possible. It’s safe out there – it’s just unfamiliar territory for a pregnant woman but totally do-able. Initially, I was set up in an office doing paperwork for the trades but I noticed an internal job opening in my department for a maintenance planner so after some discussion with coworkers, I applied for one of the openings.

I still plan to become Red-Seal Certified as a Millwright though my apprenticeship is looking a little different and taking a bit of a detour. All in due time!

I love and value my career and can’t take photos on the floor due to our strict Business Code of Conduct…but that’s okay! I think visual imagery will do just fine relating my experience to you. I hope you have enjoyed my adventure so far.

I want to answer trade related questions and talk about some things that I’ve been asked or have had to find out for myself in the world of the skilled trades. Like, how do I keep my skin clean after getting really dirty at work with dust and grease? What products do I use? What is it like working with the majority of men? Okay, I’ll give you this one right off the bat: The guys have been wonderful! I wouldn’t give my work family away for nothing in the entire world. Soul family indeed.

I am the daughter of two steelworkers. When I was in high school, both of my parents expressed their wish for my sister and I to be university educated because they had not had the opportunity to be.

My dad is a hands-on guy who was a car mechanic in his early working years and I remember him saying that he was the first person in his shop class to be able to read a micrometer. He did so effortlessly despite having trouble doing mathematics; two skills that I worked earnestly to learn decades later. I had stopped paying attention to mathematics upon the sixth grade and barely touched it until I went back to college.

My mother tutored him in math (it’s how they met!) as she excelled in that area – and every other subject – which earned her a high school diploma with honors; she ran track whereas I refused every sport and/or group/physical activity as a youth. If it was an activity with other people it was a “no” from me lol I didn’t really speak in school until I was an older child because I was very, very cognizant from the time I was a toddler (I can still remember my mobile music from my crib for example) — and in turn very, very shy. I didn’t know what “energy” was back then or why I could “feel” that a person was “good” or “bad” despite the words that came out of their mouths but that is talk for my spiritual posts.

I am the combination of my father’s mechanically inclined self with the passion for excelling in my education like mom was; though Dad did karate and played hockey unlike myself…who chose to read books as my “sport” growing up. When my parents were thrust into the working world after graduation Mom took a job as a scheduler/coordinator at one steel manufacturing plant and Dad chose the steel mill that I work for now; the mill she worked at for 31 years went bankrupt and was sold (adding to her stress) while Dad’s company thrived and he was able to retire after 41 years of working there. He retired the day after Mom died.

Before he retired though, I told my mentor where he worked and he took me to see Dad in action at work; I will forever cherish the moment I met him there and was able to see where he worked to provide the very education that saw me in a blossoming career as an industrial millwright apprentice. Actually, I funded my college degree on my own but my parents paid for both my sister and I to obtain our university degrees so I am forever grateful for that.

I remember Mom saying that they would either fund our post-secondary education or a big wedding in the future and as I looked at the tuition fees ahead of me in comparison to my barely $200 bi-weekly paycheck from working minimum wage part-time and no fiancé in sight – lmao – I chose the education option. Thank goodness! I grew up appreciating that “money doesn’t grow on trees” and knowing how hard my parents worked for us; their only goal was to provide for us a hardworking example and offer us better opportunities than they had.

Or I could “marry rich!” like Mom had suggested…lmao. My mother was extremely book-smart; I was disappointed in myself for struggling through university because I know she would have excelled and thrived there if given the chance.

Both of my parents were first-hand witnesses to the steel-making industry during a time where safety was not deemed as important as the manufacturing itself, so naturally they steered their children toward “safe” careers that a university education could potentially cultivate like social work or business. It didn’t help that I was extremely closed-minded and thought that tools and the like were “for the boys” so every time my dad tried to teach me anything about tools – power or not –I’d refuse.

When I googled “What are skilled trades?” one day after working as a cosmetologist and realizing that I was probably not the next Bobbi Brown –  lol –  I made a dramatic change in direction but I had some questions that needed to be answered, first. I didn’t want to get hurt or die at work and I wanted to make good money after seeing how hard it is to live off minimum wage jobs.

I used to listen to the financial struggles of my coworkers (typically adult women with children) and appreciate the opportunity for post-secondary even more-so than before – plus people can be downright mean/rude/awful when you’re working in the public service industry and working in it for ten years forced me to open my eyes at the choices I had to make for my future. I met with the dean of Mohawk College at the time – I think his name was Doug please forgive me lol – and I asked him… “Is being a millwright viable for women to do as a career?” and “What are the prospective job opportunities?” That conversation changed my life.

He told me that women were a minority in the skilled trades and that people were actively trying to change the culture by educating women on the advancements in industry and the wide-range of prospective careers that any chosen field has to offer.

I chose millwrighting because I’d rather be crushed than zapped – Not going to lie lmao but I can assure you neither of those things will happen if you keep safety a priority. I found out later that women tend to choose the electrical field because it’s less physically demanding than millwrighting is and more intricate…but I really had no idea about anything so I picked the one that was the most appealing to me. Millwrighting offered an array of skills that drew on different fields like pipe-fitting, welding and electrical so I liked that it offered a wide-range of skills to be learned one day.

I had assumed that other girls were as intimidated towards the trades just like I was, unless they grew up around boys and tools. That was almost a decade ago and now that I have some insight into my trade – more specifically the industrial manufacturing/steel-making environment – I’d like to give others an overview of what life is like as a trades-person to encourage others to consider this a viable option as a future career.

I work for what can be considered one of the “roughest/dirtiest/loudest” industries and watching molten steel being poured from ladles while walking to my department at work also terrified me at first – I’ve been afraid many times but the best advice for fear is to educate yourself on process and safety so that you’re aware of what’s going on around you. Knowledge is power, especially in the skilled trades.

The company that I work for is currently going through dramatic changes because of a high turnover rate of retirees, and throughout Canada it is evident that there is a lack of interest in the trades and/or related careers which offers many different career paths and opportunities….should students select these fields to study in. When I was first enrolled in trade school I remember a female iron-worker who performed a speech trying to educate people about the opportunities as an iron-worker.

I had a very difficult time identifying with her and I thought to myself: “She’s got the right idea to advocate for women but I really  wish there was someone who looked and sounded more like me…” She was tall and muscular and she emanated divine masculine energy; bravery, skill, strength and confidence showed in her speech and in photo after photo of her on-the-job…but I could not relate as someone who identifies strongly with divine feminine energies.

I wore makeup and was passive, soft, quiet and did not feel brave, strong nor confident like she seemed to be. These differences drew a line between Ms. Iron-Worker and I; the divisiveness of what I was perceiving women to be as tradesmen and who I am as a person is what initially kept me away from inquiring about the skilled trades – though I was actually interested in shop class in high school but was too intimidated to try it out.

The day she spoke to us was the day I told myself that if I could figure out how to be myself AND be a trades-person at the same time, then one day I would do what she does and help educate other people;  especially timid ones like myself to the benefits of working in a skilled trade.

Alas…here we are. Parts of me have changed since then and I have become strengthened through the knowledge and education which in turn helped to balance out my energies; I employ strength, confidence and bravery each day but my soft, gentle, ultra-feminine nature has yet to waiver. One day I hope to be leadership at work and show that not only can women be tradespeople but we can excel here; I use every strength I have to my advantage and I see weakness as an opportunity to improve my skills.

When I entered into shop class during college and saw my shop teacher grinding a drill bit – I didn’t even know what that was at the time – I wanted to run out because I thought the “sparks” (metal filings/filament) would hurt me and I was fucking terrified. I’ve had many a moment where I thought “Well…that’s it for me I’m out” but if I’m honest, those moments have proven to me time after time that even I am stronger than I believe I am sometimes…and maybe you are too.

The land of the skilled trades is safe now; 2020 sees safety programs implemented to ensure employee safety is strictly upheld and we get time off work if we don’t follow these procedures at all times. “Your job will be automated soon…” is a statement I’ve heard frequently and more recently.

 My response is that if you can get a robot to go into one of the grease pits of our Hot Mill and burn a 2” nut with a torch to loosen it up before hammering on it with a wrench and mallet because it’s stuck to all hell…then by all means show me this miracle robot lol. Or get a robot to jimmy-out a seized roll using a come-along that is stuck inside a casting cartridge due to a steel break-out then sure…maybe we’ll talk.

We will always need skilled hands to turn wrenches and to assist where technology simply cannot offer what human hands can; and even with our newest Tempering Mill which has the most up-to-date technology in the line there are still millwrights, pipe-fitters, welders, electricians and more that work there each day. Because I am a considered a small female – 5’5 and 115 pounds – I decided early on that I would like to be a Mechanical Maintenance Planner, and though I am now, yet still considered an apprentice as I work out on the floor from time to time, I juggle the two roles as I navigate my career moving forward.

The way things worked out for me may not look the same for other people and I don’t want to pigeonhole this piece by advocating for only women, because there are men who may think that “they aren’t cut out for the trades” too and I wish to dispel their myths and preconceptions, too. Wearing a hard hat, working an angle grinder and even welding for the first time was foreign to me…but hey, so was drawing winged eyeliner at one time.

Time and practice have shown me that I can manipulate a grinder in some precarious situations – though I can’t say the same for the eyeliner lol! When I was first starting out I wrote the most common fractions we use on the inside of my toolbox and I would reference them secretly during the day as I picked a tool out of there.

 And I spent hours learning to read a tape measure and understand what different lengths looked like, handling fasteners and becoming familiar with what nut/bolt sizes and lengths looked like in reality. None of this felt natural at first – and it was definitely challenging – but what helped me learn the absolute most was accepting that it might take me finding the right mentor to teach me a certain trick or way to do things and the best way to learn is to keep trying and asking questions.

My mentors shaped me into the trades-person I am today and I am forever indebted to them for taking a chance on me at a time that I had thought I’d make a very, very big mistake in choosing the skilled trades as a career. Because of my mentors and teachers I am able to wake up each morning and enjoy the benefits of persisting through a challenging academic program and reap the rewards of a highly-sought after career in my field.

Traditionally, Mechanical Maintenance Planners in our mill were plucked from seasoned tradespeople who were familiar with the work but could no longer physically perform on the line; safety standards have changed to decrease the physical impact of the job as a millwright and have opened up avenues for people like me to thrive in. I now utilize my strong computer and writing skills honed in university in combination with my hands-on mechanical skills.

When I’m out on the line with the guys, we all work as a team to utilize each other’s strengths during job execution. If there is something that requires a lot of strength typically one of the bigger guys helps out, whereas I volunteer to fit inside tighter spots that some of those guys can’t maneuver with PPE on – thereby compromising safety – and at the end of the day we all feel like we did the best we could.

Going home after a physically challenging day makes dinner taste even better and I sleep soundly after a good day’s work – like the time one journeyman and I rebuilt a 15′ turbine pump with 5 impellers which took us two weeks to complete. It is extremely satisfying to see a job out from start to finish like that.  One major reason that the company I work for is so successful is because they put effort into training (and retraining!) individuals with quick note of change in culture…and we’re adapting to these changes with ease. I’m proud to be a steelworker.

My company operates like a “mini-city within our city” and it gives me great pride to bring strength to the workforce that not only put food on my plate as a child, but a company who has invested in me; a woman who was once traditionally excluded from the field of millwrighting altogether.

As I reflect on my journey in the skilled trades so far I can only see good things for the future and I hope that I can inspire others to pursue where their heart takes them in spite of what tradition – or your apprehensions – tell you. If you have any questions regarding my work as a Mechanical Maintenance Planner OR as an Industrial Millwright Apprentice (or Brock University/Mohawk College Alumni!) please do not hesitate to ask – I’m more than happy to help.

Kaila A. Notto

Copyright © The Mindful Millwright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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