Students flock to Cambridge to consider becoming ‘Jill of all Trades’

Read the full Cambridge Today news article by Joel McGinty.

The skilled trades campus at Conestoga College was packed with employers and students handpicked from around the province to learn more about the trades and finding their place in the workforce.

For the past 10 years, Conestoga College has held the Jill of all Trades (JOAT) event as part of an initiative to get more young women acquainted with the trades and break down barriers in the industry.

Back in 2014, Brenda Gilmore and Rosie Hessian were tasked with creating an event that bridges the gaps in the skilled trades and opens the doors for thousands of young women across the region.

“We started back in 2014 as a response to the school boards asking if we could do something for young women in trades that is hands-on and at the campuses,” said Hessian.

In the early days, JOAT had around 120 girls helping with the event and that has ballooned to nearly 300. This increase in volunteers is a testament to how great these workshops are added Gilmore.

Now set up at the skilled trades campus at 25 Reuter Dr. in Cambridge, the state-of-the-art facility houses some of the newest technology and allows each student to experience what it’s like in each profession.

Hannah Paasila is a grade 12 student from Milton who travelled to the college last year for her first JOAT session. She is now poised to start her apprenticeship next week after completing all of her required classes.

“I was adamant that I was going to be a welder and I was sure I absolutely hated plumbing and no one could convince me otherwise,” said Paasila.

After attending last year’s event, Paasila was exposed to other trades outside of welding and with the hands-on experience, she fell in love with plumbing and is now on the path to a career at 17.

“These programs are so great at giving a glimpse of different trades to young girls especially; it opens your mind to all different options. I was hyper-focused on welding for seven years and it really opened my eyes and showed me something else that I would love to do,” she said.

The confidence and willingness to work that some of these young girls are coming into the programs with is refreshing to Brandi Ferenc, an HVAC mechanic who attended the first JOAT event back in 2014.

“Some of them are ready to go and so motivated like, I don’t even have that much motivation for my job some days, so it is nice to see,” said Ferenc.

The connections and skills are just one part of the puzzle of the event, the representation and seeing people like Ferenc thrive in her field is another aspect that is vital to young women looking to join the industry, added Paasila.

Jessica Barry is another student who attended a JOAT event and has come back to help teach the next generation of young girls and give them a hand in the woodworking shop.

“When I was in high school I had no interest in being in the trades. At my school, trades just weren’t a thing girls go into, but then I found this program and it was one of the best decisions I ever made,” said Barry.

“I love that I can give back and bring in the future and encourage them to do what we did and take that leap.”

Barry is about to graduate from her carpentry program at Conestoga College and start her apprenticeship full-time.

Outside of the carpentry classes and away from the sounds of nail guns and hammers, the main hall was full of employers looking to meet their future employees and apprentices.

Asha Burry is the human resources leader for Owen’s Corning, a building materials manufacturer and seller, she is looking to connect with young women interested in the trades and fill a depleting workforce.

“You look at the skilled trades and there is something like 700,000 tradespeople retiring. We desperately need to fill this void,” said Burry. “Women make up at least 50 per cent of the workforce so we are missing the mark when there are so few girls in the field.”

According to Statistics Canada, women only make up five per cent of all skilled labourers in the country. With events like these, companies like Owen’s Corning look to tap into the well of potential hires at local schools.

“These positions aren’t and shouldn’t be looked at as fallback or second option jobs. The skilled trades pay well and are always going to be needed and right now we need people,” added Burry.

With the growth of the events of the past few years and the rising demand for workers, Gilmore and Hessian are looking to take JOAT nationwide by 2026 and even bring in some partners from the United States.

Already serving over 1,000 students in 2024, Gilmore thinks that thousands more can be brought into the world of skilled trades if they are given the opportunity.

“As this thing keeps on growing we know that we are doing what we can to bring in the next generation,” said Hessian. “We’re creating a movement across North America for young women to choose skilled trades careers and we’re so proud of that.”