EmPOWER program trials tech for training women in the trades

Unique women in the trades training program showcases emerging technologies to latest cohort.

For three years and through six cohorts, SAIT and Manpower Alberta have partnered on emPOWER, a unique training initiative that aims to attract more women to the trades.

The 15-week, government-funded program launched at SAIT as part of International Women’s Day 2019 and gives participants the opportunity to experiment with pre-apprenticeship training in five trades, including ironworking, carpentry and heavy equipment technician.

“The goal of emPOWER is to break down misperceptions and as many barriers to the trades as we can,” says Heidi Brandley, Director of Workforce Development, Manpower Alberta. “Sometimes participants have thought about working in the trades but they’re not sure what trade to choose or if they can do it. This program allows them to start somewhere and gain the confidence to pursue a career path knowing they can.”

Trades training with technology

Recognizing that path will likely lead to jobs and a workforce that are changing with technology, emPOWER partners are exploring potential opportunities to apply technology to their trades training.

“The trades are not isolated from the disruption happening across all industries,” says Lauren Bishop, Indigenous and Non-Profit Client Development Manager, SAIT Corporate Training. “The future workforce coming out of programs like emPOWER needs to have an awareness of the way their jobs could be changing in the near future due to technology.”

Recently, emPOWER worked in collaboration with Xpan Interactive Ltd., a pioneer in developing immersive eLearning, web and multimedia solutions, to host a technology exploration event for students in their latest cohort. The exploration was designed to expose the students to emerging technologies while also getting input on the value of incorporating technology in future training programs.

The event showcased interactive digital tools, virtual reality (VR) simulations and augmented reality (AR) experiences, including a pre-trip inspection and ride along in a heavy equipment vehicle, and a 3D visualization allowing users to troubleshoot mechanical errors in a bus.  

“We want to give women every exposure, every skill to be competitive,” says Brandley. “The opportunity to access equipment and experience dangerous situations in a safe, virtual environment showcased that technology can be fundamental for training purposes.”

Based on initial feedback, the students would definitely recommend the technology experience to future cohorts.

“Using the heavy equipment demo, you can really get in there and see the alternator, understand the flow and how it interacts with the starter,” says Shelley Jahnke, emPOWER participant. “It would have really helped augment what we learned and would have made it an even more hands-on experience.”

Opening doors for diversity and inclusion

Amidst the increasing uptake of VR and AR in a variety of trades industries, emPOWER partners can also see technology promoting increasing diversity and inclusion in the world of trades.

“I think technology will attract more women to trades,” says Bishop. “There are always going to be boots on the ground, but I think technology is going to allow new avenues of work in the various trades.”

“Technology takes away the need for physical size and strength to do certain tasks,” adds Brandley. “In the future, it might not be about the physical dexterity of doing the work but being tech savvy.

“A lot of these women have backgrounds in office environments or in areas where they may have used technology before and that means they can transfer these skills into the trades.”


Why emPOWER: Women in Trades? 👷‍♀️ 

Shelley Jahnke grew up on a farm and has lots of experience just getting the work done. She’s also had a long and successful career in business.

“I’ve often thought if I could do it over again, I’d take a toolbox to work. When I got laid off through COVID, and with the energy industry changing, I decided this is my chance.

“So much of what you’re doing in this program is getting a comfort level, realizing it’s okay not to know everything and to make mistakes. emPOWER reinforced there are lots of things you bring to the table but expertise isn’t something you need to get started.”

Syd Boyes was looking at doing a pre-apprenticeship program in carpentry but wasn’t entirely sure about her choice of trade.

“It’s a lot of money if you’re not sure. It’s also a little bit intimidating. emPOWER provides a safe learning environment with like-minded women, who are super passionate and want to progress their career or start a new one. The instructors and facilities at SAIT are awesome, and being here has been really inspiring.

“I’ve figured out I do in fact like carpentry but I also really enjoy plumbing. I think my goal down the line is to be a certified red seal in a few different trades. I want to do as much as I can and be the best at everything!”

Robin Adair was in the middle of a career change when she found the emPOWER program.

“I’ve always thought about working in the trades but it was a scary prospect. Joining the program was less about trying a specific trade and more about seeing if the whole picture is a fit for me. All the questions I was allowed to ask here really showed me I was in the right place — and that there’s a place for everyone.

“Building relationships with these women is something I’m going to celebrate. I’m also going to take advantage of that network and stay in contact. We’re going to need each other and I’m more than okay with that.”

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