When Daina Cobb’s job running a chartered boat office on Toronto Harbor stopped paying sales commissions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it felt like an opportunity to make a long-held dream come true.
Her old job was no longer good enough to pay the bills, says Cobb. So the mother of two children jumped. In February 2021, he founded Screw It Contracting – a tongue-in-cheek name suggested by his 90-year-old grandmother – and established himself as a general contractor.
“My passion has always been building,” she says.
She discovered the business more than two decades ago, when she stumbled upon a woodworking workshop in the garage of the condo building she was living in at the time. She was immediately hooked, she says.
“I started buying lumber from Home Depot,” she says. “I’ll be down for hours at a time.“
The next thing she knew, she was building TV stands, bookcases, spice racks, and armories for family and friends. She says she struggled with the idea of starting her own business for years. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that he finally did.
“At that time my kids were old enough to go ahead and start my passion,” she says. “And so that’s what I did.”
Many women rethink their careers amid the labor market turmoil caused by the pandemic, some moving into a traditionally male-dominated field: the skilled trades.
Despite accounting for just 47 percent of pre-COVID-19 employment, women made up about 54 percent of the job losses linked to the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada. That’s because in restaurants, salons, hotels and child-care centers, female workers took up many of the low-paying, people-facing jobs impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, research has shown.
In the hospitality industry alone, women lost about 65 percent of their jobs. And many of those who remained employed like Cobb still saw their hours or pay reduced.
But as the economy revives, more women are leaving their old service-sector jobs to become electricians, plumbers or carpenters, embracing higher-paying trades where they have always been under-represented.
Michelle Crisp, a former personal trainer and nutritionist who began designing and building Crisp in 2018, says she has taken on three more female team members since December 2020. All of them quit or withdrew from service-sector jobs that were heavily affected by COVID-19 protocols, according to Crisp.
“They’ve told me … that they’ve been thinking about making a change for quite some time,” she says. She says the pandemic was the catalyst.
At Industry Training Authority BC (ITA), a Crown corporation that oversees skilled trade development in British Columbia, Shelley Gray says she is already seeing an increase in the number of female enrollments in training programs for trades where women Usually make up a small percentage of trainees. In the first six months of 2021, registration of women over the age of 30 had increased by three percent compared to the same period in 2019, before the pandemic broke out, she says.
“I think people see this as an opportunity to find permanent employment in well-paying careers that have rebounded and done well through the pandemic,” she says.
Gray is hoping that others will come to see skilled trades like this. ITA is planning a marketing offensive this fall that is specifically targeted at women and other groups that have been hit hard by the loss of service-sector jobs.
The prospect of a good salary without spending the time and money on a university or college degree is undoubtedly part of the allure of a career in skilled trades.
Between 2005 and 2015, the income of men who held university degrees increased by only six percent, while those in trades increased by 14 percent. 2017 Study Statistics Canada shows. And men with apprenticeship training were earning about $73,000 a year in 2015, seven percent more than those with college diplomas ($68,000). In Saskatchewan, they even managed to outpace graduate degree holders, bringing home about $86,000 per year compared to $84,000 per year for those with a degree.
Job Bank data shows that as of the end of 2020, the high-end salary for electricians working as contractors in Canada was $52.08 an hour. That works out to less than $108,000 a year for a 40-hour workweek. For carpenters working as contractors, the high end of the salary range was $45.45 per hour, or about $95,000 per year.
In trades traditionally dominated by women, on the other hand, the salary range is significantly lower. For a hairstylist, for example, hourly wages ranged from as high as $25 to as high as $11.55, according to Job Bank data.
For Crisp, the general contractor’s pivot also brought greater financial stability.
“(Salary) For anyone who has ever been into nutrition and personal training, it’s like the stock market – very uncertain ups and downs. There is a lot of uncertainty, sometimes month to month, a lot of cancellations,” she says.
Being a contractor requires being an entrepreneur, but the work keeps coming, she says.
Her business, which is specializing in trees and outdoor playhouses as well as backyard renovations, took off quickly after a real estate agent friend tapped her for a bigger project and her client took to social media. About Crisp’s work.
She says that in less than four years since she started her company, her income has nearly tripled.
Cobb, which started in February, also says she’s been working non-stop, growing her business through referrals without any advertising.
And both Crisp and Cobb dropped out without going back to school. Cobb received training from a woodworking workshop, as well as 20 years of furniture making experience. Crisp says that she learned all the basics from her father, whom she…