Alanah Coss says she doesn’t feel out of place as a woman working in trades.
“With all trades, you’ve got to have tough skin,” says Coss, who is Métis. “It’s just, you’ve got to work with guys all the time. I hope to see more women in trades in the future.”
Coss is currently studying at Okanagan College to become an electrician. She says she made the switch after working in the culinary arts for 12 years — where she says her education was undervalued.
“I had two years of schooling in culinary arts and I was getting paid less than people [who didn’t have the same level of schooling],” Coss tells Indiginews. “Then when all the restaurants closed, it kind of just jumpstarted my feeling of wanting change.”
Coss says she decided to challenge herself by entering the Electrical Pre-Apprenticeship program at Okanagan College.
“My dad was a home inspector and [he did] home renovations, and then my uncle was an electrician,” says Coss. “I’ve kinda just always known that I needed to be moving and working with my hands, constantly challenging myself.”
Coss says she completed the six-month program this summer with a 95 per cent average. She says she learned entry-level safety and power tool usage and how to wire different devices, switches, and plugs. And so far, she’s enjoying this new career path.
“With electrical, I’m always thinking, I’m always on my feet, always moving. So it’s been amazing,” says Cross.
Now that she’s completed her first apprenticeship she plans to continue her studies to obtain her Red Seal as a journeyperson electrician.
“It feels great completing my first level because now I get to get out into the workforce and begin actually doing hands-on job site stuff, other than just being in class,” she says.
Coss recently received one of several new FortisBC scholarships created for women and Indigenous students in the trades at Okanagan College.
“This scholarship has opened up so many opportunities for me to talk with Fortis representatives,” she says. “They’ve been guiding me and helping me kind of choose different paths between now and when I’m a journeyman.”
How is Okanagan College helping Indigenous women in the trades?
Okanagan College staff say they’re doing a number of things to make the trades more accessible for women and Indigenous women in particular.
Nancy Darling administers the school’s women in trades training program.
She says they try to meet with all women entering a trades program to build a relationship with the students and find out what their education barriers are so they can find a way to mitigate them.
“One of the big things we do is we pay their full tuition, their books, their tools, their pre-apprenticeship,” Darling says. “That in and of itself has been a huge barrier to [all] women taking trades programs.”
The college also supports women to develop their math and English skills, which are required in a trade foundation program, she says.
“We help to break the fear of math … because every single trade needs math and a lot of people have math anxiety,” says Darling.
Camille Jensen, who does marketing and communications for the college, says there are currently 120 bursaries and scholarships available specifically for Indigenous students.
The school also has an Aboriginal admissions policy, which applies to all foundational trades programs. “One seat out of 16 is reserved for an Indigenous student,” says Sara Cousins, manager of trade programs at the school.
In the fall of 2021, 17 of 176 students — or ten per cent — of trades foundations students at the college identified as Indigenous (including folks identifying as male or female), according to Cousins.
“Women need to feel like they’re going to be welcomed in their workplace,” she says.