Nikole K. Robinson
LiUNA Member, General Labourer for Aecon
Mediaplanet spoke with proud LiUNA Sister and general labourer for Aecon, Nikole Robinson, to discuss her experience with the new Women in Trades Program that LiUNA launched in partnership with Aecon.
Mediaplanet: How did you hear about the Women in Trades program and what inspired you to seek a career in the trades?
Nikole Robinson: After being a stay-at-home mom for almost five years, I wanted to be out in the world, creating. I’ve always loved the outdoors. I’m from the small town of Gooderham in Haliburton County. If you wanted to have fun, make money, or live life there, you had to embrace the outdoors.
I’ve always known that I wanted to work outdoors and with my hands, but there was something holding me back. It was a “man’s world,” and it was very intimidating. I was able to take part in lawn maintenance, but it seems that’s all I could find at the time.
My husband, however, was able to land a job in sewer and water maintenance through LiUNA Local 183. When I was ready to begin my search of employment, he mentioned the extensive list of programs LiUNA offered and I immediately went to their website and found a landscaping program. I applied, and soon enough I was driving to the LiUNA Training Centre!
As I was attending the Landscaping course, one day I arrived and noticed all these unfamiliar faces: women! There were about 12 women getting out of their vehicles with tool belts, hammers, and hard hats in hand. They all started to greet each other like they’d known each other for years. It was a sisterhood, a union family.
On my lunch break, I decided to investigate. As I approached the women, they all smiled and invited me to join their conversation. Finally, I asked the
question that would change my life: “What program are you all here for?” They began to tell me about Aecon partnering with LiUNA to deliver the Women in Trades program.
The disappointment I felt from not being part of this soon vanished. Ally Boutin of Aecon informed me that Aecon was going hire a new wave of trainees for this specific program in a couple of months. I also found out that you didn’t need to have any experience. They were willing to take on women who had never even held a hammer before. The program was for building the confidence that many women were having trouble finding, while familiarizing them with tools and the construction world.
Absolutely intrigued, I went home that evening, did some research, and applied right away. Within a couple weeks I received a phone call, and the process began.
What did the program entail? What was the most interesting part?
The Construction Craft Worker (CCW) program that I was accepted into had numerous aspects to it. We were taught everything from reading a tape measure to trenching with machines. With it having such a broad spectrum, we were able to take on so many aspects of the industry.
When we first started, our instructor Sean Stewart sat in front of all the women and gave us a little encouragement. That stuck with me. He said, “Right now all you ladies are like a wave. Some have no experience, some have a little, and some have more. In this program you’ll all find something you struggle with, but in the end, you’ll all leave here on the same level. I’ll make sure of it.”
We started with safety training and math. We earned training and certification in Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHIMIS), Working at Heights, Traffic Control, and so much more. Then we were ready to start working with our hands.
It might sound funny, but we began with hammering nails, then using the skill saw. Remember, some of these women had never even held a tool. Within a few days, though, you better believe we were ready for the projects to begin.
Form building, concrete stairs, platforms, and framing began. Everyone helped each other. Everyone was learning how to work as a team. Sean never shied away from any questions we had, even if they seemed ridiculous.
We ended CCW with machinery. After we did the mini excavator and skid steer training, we started playing with the big toys. Many who were nervous when we began were now hopping in the machines willingly each day. We couldn’t get enough!
When you’re in the program, you wonder why they structure it in certain ways, but when you’re out in the field, it all comes together. Every little thing we did has come up at least once. Even though I don’t have much experience in some things, I’m at least familiar now.
The bond we built continues and we all talk almost every day. We’re a sisterhood in the LiUNA Family.
How were you supported throughout the program?
The support was left, right, and centre. Every LiUNA instructor always had open ears. Sean Stewart was a huge supporter. He never made us feel like we couldn’t do something. If he sensed us doubting ourselves, he made us face our fears.
Scared of heights? He would send you up the ladder first. Scared of the machines? He started you off slow, and showed you that the machines were to be respected, not feared. LiUNA not only offers hands-on training, it excels in leadership and instils confidence in every single person who steps foot in one of its training centres.
Most of all, it was the other women in the program who offered support. We developed friendships. We ranged from middle-aged moms to young women just starting their professional lives. As a group we were strong. When someone was having a bad day, we cheered them up. If someone didn’t know how to do something, we would try and show them, and assure them that they’d get it. These women were my rocks through the program. We talked every day, including weekends when we were apart. The support we give each other didn’t stop at the LiUNA Training Centre. The bond we built continues and we all talk almost every day. We’re a sisterhood in the LiUNA Family.
What was the biggest takeaway that you walked away with?
Confidence! I was one of the women who was scared of the machines, had trouble with math, and had never used a skill saw. We were taught that you can achieve anything if you go in with an open mind, a willingness to learn, and some confidence. John Gaulley, another instructor, once told me, “Don’t say no because you’re scared. Explain that you’re willing to take on the task. You may not have all the experience, but you’re willing to get your hands dirty and try.”
I took this to the field and now I see what he was talking about. There have been many times when I’ve been asked to complete a task that I’m unfamiliar with. I always explain that I’ve never done this before, or that I have little experience, but that I’m willing to try. I find with this approach, people become softer and open to teach you. It’s better to be honest and willing than to never try, or to try and make a huge mistake because you didn’t inform them of your lack of knowledge.
One more thing I took away from this is that women belong in the trades, point blank.
How has this program prepared you for your future?
This program with LiUNA gave me the opportunity to build a career and a better future. LiUNA and Aecon gave me a sense of confidence, which will always go a long way in everything that I do. Going through the process and program taught me that when one door closes, 10 more open. You just need to go for it and open them. Get dirty, use your hands, and take on new challenges.
What would you like to tell other students who might be interested in the program?
If you want to start somewhere, start with LiUNA. Their innovative and experienced training will teach you everything from the beginning and help you excel in your career in the trades.
What advice would you give to future students who enter the program?
Just do it. Whatever doubt you have, whatever hurdles you encounter, the support is there. You come into the program as an individual, but you leave as a family. If you’re willing to listen and have an open mind, you’ll learn something new each and every day. Be the one who asks the questions. You’ll find there are questions nobody will ask, but everyone wants to know. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.