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Women at the Wheels


"It's no place for a girl!" That was the opinion of Joanne Courtoreill’s father, a heavy equipment operator. As a girl, Joanne often voiced her aspiration to someday follow in his footsteps. “I had always been interested in being an equipment operator when I was younger. But he said that the oilfield, especially, was no place for a girl, so I decided to wait until I was older.”

Many years later, after her father passed away, forty-four year old Courtoreill realized, “it was time to look after myself.” Frustrated with her warehouse job, she began researching training programs while putting away cash to fund her dream. Earlier this year, she successfully applied to the heavy equipment operator training offered by Olds College in collaboration with Women Building Futures (WBF).1

A classmate of Courtoreill, forty-seven year old Sandy Dodd is one of three female students in the same program, learning how to operate imposing-looking equipment – bulldozers, scrapers, loaders, excavators, graders, and packers.

Dodd felt motivated to earn a bigger pay cheque following a divorce. Growing up on a farm in Central Alberta, she entered the program with some prior machinery experience, as well as summer jobs in road construction. “Before taking this course, I did a little bit of everything, waitressing, working part time, raising kids along the way. Now I want to make some good money, and not be stuck indoors all summer.”

While women represent fifty percent of the provincial population, and an equal percentage of the labour force, less than eight per cent of Alberta’s trades-people are females. A growing number of women are drawn to trading up for jobs in construction, effectively showing that it is indeed a girl’s place. Wanda Wetterberg, Chief Executive Officer of WBF, says intensive training gives women a realistic understanding of the industry and the workplace environment.

According to Heidi Harris of Alberta Roadbuilders & Heavy Construction Association (ARHCA), attitudes are changing regarding women in construction trades. Feedback from employers says that women are reliable, easier on the equipment, and safety conscious.”

Some barriers remain for women entering what were once regarded as non-traditional occupations. “You need to have backups or a network, for example for childcare, and you have to realize that the job is mainly outdoors. Work is often seasonal so there are layoff times,” says Wetterberg.

Dodd and Courtoreill acknowledge that men on the job tend to be more direct than women, but say that they are not intimidated. “I’m sure I can do this,” says Dodd. Courtoreill has a positive outlook, as well. “After all, my boyfriend and I were drawn together because we both like working with equipment.”

Sixty-four year old Martha Mikkelson, attending training following a layoff after thirty years in the B.C. lumber business, isn’t put off by the seasonal factor. “There’s always snow-plowing in the winter, landscaping and road work the rest of the year,” she says.

The women view the seasonal aspect as an opportunity to spend extended focused time on family or other interests. Dodd, for instance, has the learning bug and is considering taking further courses in the safety field. Courtoreill is looking forward to the freedom, perhaps to travel. “You can work anywhere with these skills.”

What are the employment prospects, given all dire economic headlines? Heidi Harris maintains, “We [in road building] are pretty lucky. The provincial budgets for road building are close to last year’s. In economic tough times, governments focus on creating jobs in infrastructure. So we haven’t slowed down very dramatically, especially compared to other industries. The industry interest in hiring women equipment operators is high.”

Harris cautions that it isn’t for everyone. For women like Courtoreill, with family commitments, the appeal of lucrative wages is measured against those needs. But the income can mean a choice of more quality childcare, or even lift a family out of the poverty cycle.

Tess Flewelling, an Instructional Assistant in the Olds College program, says she has always been well treated on construction sites.” It’s still a men’s industry, and there are always a couple of guys who will make you prove yourself. It just takes patience; mostly the guys are pretty good.”

Dodd agrees, and laughingly refers to the ubiquitous blue porta-potties found on most construction sites, “I’m still a girl, I really like flush toilets, but I guess I’ll just deal with that!”

Printed May 2009, Real Women on the Run magazine

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