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Opening Doors

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De Sousa undergoes hands-on training at Durham.

Women elevator mechanics are being trained at a forward-thinking college campus in Canada.

After high school, Samantha Pauze narrowed her career focus to mechanical or electrical engineering after excelling in the Introduction to the Trades program at Durham College in Oshawa, Canada. Out of more than 100 men, Pauze graduated near the top of the class, mastering subjects such as carpentry, welding and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. She recalls:

“I was trying to picture myself in a welding or carpentry shop, but nothing jumped out at me. Then, I saw a flyer at an employment-service office about a free Elevating Devices Mechanic (EDM) program specifically for women in the local area. I thought, ‘What a great opportunity.’ It had never crossed my mind to be an elevator mechanic, because it was like an untouchable profession. It almost seemed like you had to know somebody to get in.”

Gabby De Sousa was at a similar place in her professional life. After earning her two-year diploma in the Electrical Engineering Technician program at Durham, she applied to more than 70 companies and received only one response. She discovered the women’s EDM program when she was visiting Durham to sign some paperwork and with her mentor and former teacher Pam Stoneham, associate dean, School of Skilled Trades, Apprenticeship and Renewable Technology (START), who encouraged her to apply.

Now, Samantha Pauze and Gabby De Sousa are working as EDM apprentices in Barrie, Ontario, for a local company, Elevator One. They envision themselves staying there, or at least in the industry, for many years. Far from being bored, Pauze says she feels challenged every day. “It’s a phenomenal trade,” she says. “You never stop learning, because the equipment is always changing.”

Pauze and De Sousa are two of the 15 participants who started in the inaugural all-women EDM pre-apprenticeship program that launched at START in February 2016. Now, program advocates are spreading the word to make sure it continues. With women currently accounting for only 1% of all elevator mechanics in Canada, program proponents also hope that it will eventually lead to an increase in that number, a goal that is certainly possible if the program can sustain its momentum.

Among the program’s champions is Terry Lynsdale, a case manager and job developer at Durham, who hopes the program will again receive funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD) A new proposal was submitted to MAESD to deliver the program again in 2017 and is currently under review.

According to Lynsdale, out of the 60 applicants to the inaugural women’s program, 15 were selected and accepted the opportunity. Positive results for the group included 13 obtaining their EDM in Training licenses and Fall Arrest certification (which replaced the Working at Heights certification in Ontario). Nine achieved EDM Level 1, the first of three levels needed to complete apprenticeship schooling before taking the final written exam. Ten job-placement opportunities were offered by businesses in the industry, which led to two women (Pauze and De Sousa) being offering and accepting EDM apprenticeships. Additionally, six women accepted job offers in the elevator field or a secondary trade. De Sousa is also planning to return to Durham this month to study EDM Level 2.

A Program Is Born

Durham’s EDM program, on which the EDM pre-apprenticeship program is based, traces its roots to the late 1980s, when Ontario independents were threatened with elimination as a result of verbiage in the Technical Safety & Standards Act requiring all elevator mechanics in the province to be National Elevator Industry Educational Program (NEIEP) certified.

“Because the NEIEP program belongs to the International Union of Elevator Constructors, a mechanic would have to be a union member in order to take part in the program,” explains Allan Lockyer, program coordinator and professor with Durham’s EDM program. “Therefore, if the act were passed as written, the law, by design, would have eliminated the nonaffiliated, nonunion sector of the elevator industry in Ontario.”

In response, Lockyer, whose elevator-industry career spans nearly five decades, joined forces with colleagues and had the government change the wording of the law to allow independents to exist. The caveat was they had to supply their own education program comparable to NEIEP certification. This led Canada’s Independent Elevator Contractors Association (IECA) to devise a program that was approved by MAESD (then the Ministry of Education and Training) in 1999.

For approximately four years, IECA ran the Elevator Devices College. However, it proved to be unsustainable. Lockyer states:

“We realized the cost involved was heavy, when you include paying for classroom space and teacher salaries. So, we decided we would try to get the ministry to recognize a standardized education program that would be open to all. We at IECA felt the best way to do that would be to have our trade made into an apprenticeship.”

The next step was to find a college willing to take on the program. This led to Durham’s involvement, where faculty and administrators saw the potential of the program and the college’s ability to deliver it, which Lockyer describes as “a good match due to their many similar programs.”

The EDM program at Durham encompasses 720 hr. and 25 components, including elevator history, terminology and safety. For hands-on training, the campus in Whitby, Ontario, where the program is based, is equipped with two elevators and two empty hoistways, an escalator, hydraulic systems and pumps. It has been a popular program, with approximately 40 students enrolled each year. Traditionally, enrollment has been 98% male.

A self-described “feminist at heart” who was raised by a single mother of six, Lockyer had a desire to make the elevator program more inclusive and encourage more women to enter the field. He shared his vision with Stoneham, who quickly became the driving force behind the women’s EDM pre-apprenticeship program.

Spreading Awareness, Changing Perception

The criteria to apply to the program requires applicants to have their Ontario Secondary School diploma or the equivalent (the Canadian Adult Achievement Test), and a hunger to enter the skilled-trades arena. Successful applicants spent the first six weeks of the program revisiting their grade 12 subjects before participating in a week of training specifically designed for women entering nontraditional roles. It includes:

  • Employer expectations
  • Harassment and criticism in the workplace
  • Goal setting
  • Job-retention strategies
  • Teamwork
  • Time management and workplace etiquette
  • Values and skills
  • Work/life balance
  • Dealing with gender-based discrimination

As he was spreading the word about the program to elevator companies, Lynsdale observed some potential employers expressing their views of women being too delicate for manual labor and some of the rougher elements of the industry. “I quickly perceived a not-so-subtle bias against women — ridiculous ideas of them having to stop what they were doing because their hair looked messy or their hands were dirty,” Lynsdale says.

To combat such attitudes, Lynsdale decided to take action to raise awareness about the program. He wrote a letter to the Canadian Elevator Contractors Association (CECA), which was well received. The program has since been featured in the CECA newsletter, and Lynsdale visits employers to give presentations on the program and participates in area job fairs. He states:

“I contacted 90-plus businesses through an aggressive phone and email campaign. This led to face-to-face meetings with 30-plus elevator businesses. During these meetings, I explained the program in depth and that it was the aim to give women their first taste of the elevator industry. Frequently, there were some surprised reactions when I informed the businesses that the program was a women-only pre-apprenticeship program.”

In response to these reactions, Lynsdale often cited the example of women first entering the firefighting field in the early 1980s. Doubts were raised about women being able to deal with the demands of firefighting, including the physical aspects of the job and the ability to use powerful equipment such as pressure hoses. While women’s entry into the field included many challenges, women firefighters today are much more common and accepted.

“At the end of a meeting, I try to leave my audience with the message that times are changing,” Lynsdale says. “Women are entering the elevator industry. It is no longer 1917, it’s 2017!”

Assumptions are gradually changing. Before Pauze and De Sousa joined the company through the program, Elevator One had no female mechanics. President Doug Guderian says De Sousa and Pauze have the qualities the company wants in its employees, regardless of gender: They are smart and have good attitudes. He acknowledges challenges remain, stating:

“Women are generally capable of doing most tasks, except some of the very physically demanding portions of construction work, which even some men cannot handle. Typically, the biggest challenge is getting existing workers to accept a paradigm shift in who and how we hire and train our people.”

Guderian says he would recommend taking on women apprentices to colleagues, stating: “It seems that our two apprentices have very natural abilities that line up with what will be required to be successful as elevator mechanics.”

In spite of remaining challenges and attitudes toward women in the field, Lynsdale is finding much to be optimistic about, particularly when he receives positive feedback from students, such as a note about her first weeks on work placement and out in the field from Durham student Tianna Ghersini, who had no previous industry experience prior to entering the women’s program. She said:

“In my first few weeks, I have been learning a lot and becoming more comfortable with the tools. I have followed an installer around and helped him fit hoistway brackets. We also went to different site to run maintenance checks on freight lifts and wheelchair lifts. At the shop, I am being taught how to weld and have already learned a lot, especially about hydraulic pumps and valves. This week I got to use a plasma cutter. What a wicked tool that is!

“I just want to thank all the program staff at Durham for all their hard work and effort. It if wasn’t for you, I would not have this opportunity. I sincerely appreciate everything you have done for me. You have done an excellent job.”

In the same spirit, Pauze and De Sousa continue to love the challenges of the job and the travel. They especially like the genuine gratitude from customers whose vertical-transportation systems have been fixed and even the curious stares from people.

“I love have people seeing me work, not being scared to stand on top of an elevator, and breaking down their perceptions of what women can and can’t do,” De Sousa says. “It’s rewarding after you get a job done and, hopefully, this can help inspire other women to get into careers like this.”

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