With Canada set to face a massive shortage of skilled trade workers over the next 10 to 15 years, recruitment is an urgent focus for trade sector organizations.
In addition to outreach to the traditional sources, groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in the manufacturing and construction sectors are being sought out and urged to consider careers in the trades.
One rich and nearly untapped source is women. Women make up about half the labour force but less than 4 percent of the skilled trade sector. Small wonder that governments, industry associations, colleges and trade schools, trade unions and employers are encouraging women to consider a career in the trades.
But women climbing the rungs of what has been a mainly male work ladder can face particular challenges, some broader cultural or structural issues, some more basic.
Enter Jodi Huettner. In 2011, when she began her career as a junior engineer in the BC environmental consulting industry, Jodi quickly realized that work overalls and coveralls designed for a woman’s body were simply not available. “I founded Helga Wear in 2014 to solve that problem,” said Ms. Huettner. “Improperly fitting work attire causes safety issues, plus, it’s not ideal when you can’t take a hygiene break without removing your tool belt, high-vis vest and coveralls.”
At the same time, Seaspan’s Victoria Shipyards, whose skilled trade workforce includes a growing number of women, was seeking to address feedback from employees about the form and function of “unisex” coveralls. “I’d reached out to a number of suppliers and kept hearing the same thing: ‘We don’t have a product specifically designed for women, they will just have to use the men’s coverall and adapt’ – I was not impressed.” said Karen Clarke, Senior Manager, Supply Chain Management at Seaspan’s Victoria Shipyards.
Helga Wear came to Karen’s attention when the start-up’s founder and her workwear for women were featured on CBC’s The Stats of Life. Karen turned to her husband, exclaiming “Hey! That’s something we need at the shipyard!” She reached out to the company’s founder the next day, inviting her to meet with some of the women of Seaspan to obtain their insights about the specific needs of women shipbuilders and ideas for how to improve their workwear. Following that meeting, Seaspan provided Helga Wear with seed funding for product design and development.
The coverall that Helga Wear has developed for the women of Seaspan meets safety requirements, offers a fit proportioned for a woman’s body, has zippered legs to facilitate going to the washroom, as well as other features such as adjustable collar widths, elasticated waists, and knee pad pockets.
Field-testing of the coveralls took place this summer at Seaspan’s Victoria Shipyard. The women of Seaspan were pleased. Working with ALSCO Linen Services, another Seaspan partner, Helga Wear will be providing Seaspan with three pairs of coveralls for each of the Shipyards’ women trade workers. ALSCO has also committed to adding Helga Wear coveralls to their product line, ensuring that the fledgling Canadian company’s coveralls will reach across Canada, and potentially to other markets. “We’re really proud to be working with Seaspan and Helga Wear on this initiative,” explained Jorge do Nascimento, General Manager of ALSCO Canada, applauding Jodi and Karen’s determination to ensure that the evolving workplace is equitable for all.
Karen can’t wait to see tradeswomen across the country wearing Helga Wear. “Highly-skilled women in the trades shouldn’t have to adapt to the uniform, it should adapt to them.”
ABOUT SEASPAN SHIPYARDS
With operations in North Vancouver and Victoria, Seaspan Shipyards is a leader in Canada’s shipbuilding and ship repair industry. With the modern facilities in North America and a dedicated workforce, the company has proven itself to be a trusted partner on a range of complex projects for both government and the private sector.
Seaspan Shipyards is proud to be Canada’s chosen non-combat shipbuilder under the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS). In this capacity, the company is building state-of-the-art ships in Canada for the Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Navy. Through its NSS-related work, Seaspan Shipyards is creating jobs, generating economic benefits and rebuilding Canada’s shipbuilding and marine industries.
Manager, Public Affairs
One of Seaspan’s skilled tradeswomen on the job while wearing the new women’s coveralls designed by Jodi Huettner.
The coveralls, in addition to having adjustable collar widths, elasticated waists, and knee pad pockets, also feature newly designed pockets.
Helga Wear and Seaspan’s collaboration has resulted in new coveralls designed to meet the specific needs of women and their physiology, health and safety and functional design.
With more women entering the skilled trades sector, Seaspan is adapting to the changing face of our workforce.