He was retiring.
During the months that preceded his retirement, he tried to pass off as much trade knowledge to me as he could during our time together.
From infrastructure and equipment, to contacts for outside contractors and suppliers and more, I was constantly learning.
Then, suddenly, I was blindsided. “We have decided to move you to our sister department.”
He offered to drive me over and helped me to get my bearings as I sobbed from the news.
After spending all that time trying to learn the building, I was being moved, and I was upset.
I could not see past the sting of an abrupt move as we loaded his work truck with my things.
“This is like a bad breakup, Dave. I don’t want to go.” “I know, kid. I’m sad about it too…”
“But you know what, you’ll be fine. The guys over there are great. I’ll set them straight if they give you any trouble, and I’m only a call away.”
As a female working in a mechanical trade, good mentors can be rare to find.
Mentors equipped with respect, a comforting vibe and the firmness required to learn the ropes of the trade are especially hard to come by.
Dave was that guy.
Initially, when I first started as a maintenance planner working under him, I was intimidated.
He was a big guy, about 6’2 and had a gruffy exterior to boot.
I had assumed we would not get along, being as opposite as we were. I had my own preconceived notions, and I judged the book by its cover.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
He was stern and smart, and he knew his trade.
His favourite time of the day was lunch, where he would rave about his wife and the meals she prepared for him every day. They did look good.
She was the joy of his life, and we all knew that.
He joked around with me unabashedly and was unafraid to say what the other guys were thinking.
“You’re one of us, one of the guys,” he’d say.
Some days he complained about being in pain, how the doctors couldn’t figure it out, and how maybe retirement wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
He was excited to spend time with his family, do repairs at home that he had put on the backburner because work was a time-consuming priority, and buy his sportscar.
The pandemic rolled in just as my coworkers and I began to plan his retirement party.
Instead of a get-together at a restaurant, his wife offered us their home to celebrate in, and it was a small gathering, but a good one.
We laughed, ate, and I sat mostly quiet because I was simply devastated by the changes.
I was used to mentors retiring, but Dave was special. And my boss, Sam, was retiring next.
Sam got me to where I am as a planner, and I would not be where I am today without him.
Like two bullets through the chest, I sat and smiled and wished them well, knowing I would not see them every day like I was used to.
I was grieving.
It can be hard to climb ladders in the workplace anywhere, but being a woman adds a unique set of obstacles as I try to assure my competence as a tradesperson, despite my feminine exterior.
Women journeymen are still new in the culture of industry, and I understand my role, from the preconceived notions to the hesitance some of the guys have accepting a woman as a coworker.
The company that I work for is advanced in its policies, and does not tolerate anything outside of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Because of its progressiveness, I have enjoyed work for nearly a decade without much issue.
I work in the steel manufacturing industry at a company that has been around forever.
When I started as an apprentice, our company was almost completely comprised of people who had worked there for at least thirty years.
We were the young people set to replace the seasoned ones, and there was a cake and coffee event for a retiree almost every week for the first three years that I worked there.
One by one, the guys who trained us, left.
There seemed to be two distinct types of tradesmen that I encountered.
There were the ones who accepted us instantly and were more than willing to show us the ropes, and then there were the guys who were affronted with our starting out as journeymen.
The latter group, I attributed to a stuck-in-their-ways type of mindset, and that mindset usually spilled out into their personal lives.
Shitty people tend to be shitty in all areas.
But the good ones were so good.
Instead of mocking me for not knowing, or being too small or too female to handle the work, they showed me ways to make it work.
Dave was one of the last of the older generation of millwrights in our company to hang on.
He took such pride in his work that it was no wonder he stayed working for over forty years.
Sam was the same.
They had both achieved accomplished careers, had learned a hell of a lot and were willing to offer up knowledge before they left.
True mentors, leaders, tradesmen and gentlemen.
Today I am lucky to have a team of tradespeople to learn from, and we have all, in some way, benefitted from the generation before us.
No more working on equipment that isn’t isolated because too many people were either hurt or killed before.
No more bullying, because policies are in place that refuses to permit that kind of behavior.
All stemming from individuals who worked to make the industry modern, safe and a good place to grow and learn as the next generation.
I consider myself lucky.
Even my own father, who worked at the same company (40+ years), had experienced some discrimination for his disability in the 1980’s.
What he went through would never happen today, and I reassured him as he cautiously guided me towards a career in the skilled trades.
He was more afraid of the way people would treat me than he was of my using power tools.
Despite the changes, I think it takes a certain mindset to become a tradesperson.
A willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, and a definite requirement to stand up for oneself when required are musts.
My work experience has shaped and grown me into such a confident person that, in turn, that confidence has spilled outwards into my personal life.
It allowed me to overcome many self esteem issues that haunted me for most of my youth.
Working in the trades as a mechanical tradesperson changed my life for the better, and I have never regretted my choice to take a chance on a career that I once knew nothing about.
If I had known what I was getting into, those same self esteem issues would have likely prevented my starting as an apprentice at all, and that is why I encourage people to try if even a little interested.
Who knew that all those hours spent grinding, welding and learning the equipment would take me to where I am today, into a job that allows me to thrive as both tradesperson and woman.
The skilled trades are for everybody.
Dave died about a year into his retirement, after doctors discovered his issues to be cancer.
It was a hard blow to all of us, but I advocate today because of him and for all of the guys over the decade who decided to give a girl a chance.
I am eternally grateful for Dave and for Sam, and for all of my mentors who stepped up graciously.
May we be the next generation of those people, and give a leg-up to the next set of journeymen.
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