Finding a new calling: Union encourages women to apprentice as crane operators

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By Grant Cameron

Special to GTA Construction Report

At 24, Gabrielle Fortin of Pickering has already found her calling.

“One thing I’ve found out about myself is that I like operating machinery, especially mobile cranes,” she says matter-of-factly. “I just like operating any type of machine I can get my hands on.”

Today, Fortin is apprenticing as a mobile crane operator with Local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. She was at the Oakville campus of the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario (OETIO) recently for the first leg of her training.

Before taking the course, Fortin had only watched cranes from afar. Now she’s at the controls.

“I’m learning a lot of new stuff and more about the technical aspect of everything to do with a crane,” she says. “The instructor really makes sure that everything is clear to the students.”

After graduating from high school, Fortin didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life. So, she went to college and eventually graduated as a medical laboratory technician.

“I finished it, then went to work and found I didn’t like it,” she explains. “That’s when I made the decision to change.”

She got her AZ licence from Transport Canada and applied to the training course at the OETIO.

Her initial training involves six weeks of in-class and field instruction. The apprenticeship consists of 6,000 hours of on-the-job training. She’ll return to the OETIO twice more for instruction.

Fortin is looking forward to the new career.

“Cranes have a lot of different attachments and can do a lot of the things that heavy equipment can do,” she says. “We can dredge, we can drill and we can hammer. You don’t just pick up and move things around. There’s a whole bunch of things cranes can do.”

Being the only women in her class hasn’t been an issue, says Fortin.

“When you get into a professional organization like this everybody’s more welcoming and you’re tutored as the person you are and not your gender. I found that you’re very respected.”

Fortin says she follows advice given to her by her sister, a millwright.

“She said, ‘Just be yourself, keep on smiling and don’t come in with a chip on your shoulder.’ You just come in and be who you are.”

Fortin is one of four women who are training to be crane apprentices. A fifth woman who graduated earlier from the OETIO is now working out west.

Local 793 business manager Mike Gallagher says the union has been reaching out in an effort to recruit more women into the trades and it is paying off, as the OETIO is getting more enquiries from women seeking information about crane and heavy equipment training.

Tanya Uiselt

In the past three years alone, he noted, 114 women have been trained at the OETIO facilities.

“We have run special programs to introduce women to the crane and heavy equipment trades and our union participates in career fairs across the country. The doors of our union are open to women who are interested in becoming crane and heavy equipment operators.”

Ray Goodfellow of Mammoet Canada, president of the Crane Rental Association of Ontario, says his company is ready and willing to take on female crane apprentices.

“These are good-paying jobs and our company, for one, would welcome the addition of female crane apprentices,” he said. “Women should consider this as a potential career.

“I am pleased to see that women are now training at the OETIO to become crane operators. The facility is world-class and the training they receive at the campus in Oakville is second to none.”

Goodfellow said his company is always on the lookout for good crane operators, as Mammoet works on many large projects across Ontario.

“Working as a crane operator could be the answer for women who are either entering the workforce or looking for a career change,” he said.

Lauren Clark, a first-year mobile crane apprentice from Dundas who is working for All Canada Crane Rental Corp., began her training at the OETIO in the spring.

She’d always been interested in the trades and decided to give it a try. After passing an aptitude test, she enrolled at the OETIO.

“I always liked machines growing up so it just sort of seemed fitting,” she says. “This has put me on the road to a successful career.”

Clark hasn’t had any issues being a woman in the trade.

“My experience has been excellent. The union’s been absolutely receptive. There were no barriers to getting into the trade. I’ve been treated just like one of the guys which is excellent.”

Clark says being a crane operator is a good trade for women, as long as they’re willing to put in the work.

“I would certainly recommend it. It’s a great life. If you can hack it, if you can do the work just like everybody else, then you deserve to be here.”

Tanya Uiselt, who is Local 793’s first Aboriginal female tower crane apprentice, is in the third year of her training.

The 21-year-old got into the trade through her father, a heavy equipment operator who has his own company.

She’d seen tower cranes on construction sites and decided it was something she wanted to do.

“Coming into the trade I thought it would be difficult being a woman, but Local 793 has backed me from day one. Local 793 was very supportive of bringing me into the union and the trade.”

Uiselt says she’s learned a lot at the OETIO and the instructors are supportive.

“They’ve got our backs. Everyone wants to see us succeed. I’ve had great experiences being a part of this training program.”

Uiselt says she wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the trade to other women.

“We need more women in this trade,” she says. “Anybody can do it if you really want it.”

 

            Grant Cameron is director of communications at Local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

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