Sara Wilson of Sidney holds the copper boat she built at the Canadian National Sheet Metal Competition in Ontario. It earned her second place. Wilson is in her fourth year of apprentice work at Seaspan's Vancouver Island shipyards in Esquimalt.

Saanich trades student earns national attention

Sara Wilson is making a name for herself in a very male-dominated industry.

Sara Wilson is making a name for herself in a very male-dominated industry.

The sheet metal apprentice worker was recently recognized by Camosun College for being the school’s top all-round trades student, and came in second in a national competition for sheet metal apprentices.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Ken MacDonald, Camosun’s sheet metal program leader. “Year after year, she was the top of her class. She’s quiet, poised – she’s a model student. And her skills were not only good with textbooks and written tests, she was also very good in the shop working with her hands and the materials.”

Wilson, 29, is newly graduated and now finishing her apprenticeship at Seaspan Victoria Shipyards. And having received Camosun’s John Drysdale Memorial Award and a second-place finish at the Canadian Sheet Metal Apprenticeship Competition in May, she should have no trouble finding a career upon completing her red-seal journeyman certification.

“Right after high school I went to university and got my Bachelor of Arts. I worked at a coffee shop for a while before I realized I wanted a career that I enjoyed,” Wilson said. “I wanted to find a career I would love and I was thinking of things I enjoyed growing up – hands on things like Lego and Meccano.”

Her first taste of the trades was through Camosun’s trades exploration course, where students get to try their hand at a variety of trades before choosing a more focused path. She quickly discovered sheet metal was where her passion lied.

“Just the laying out of the pattern on the metal, figure out how to fit it on there, cutting it out and folding it up, putting all the pieces together. It’s like a puzzle,” Wilson said of her trade. “It’s very cerebral. You have to do a lot of thinking, and a lot of hands-on work. Time just flies, I have a lot of fun doing it.”

Wilson was nominated by Local 276 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association to represent Vancouver Island at the competition in Windsor, Ont. Competing against 10 other apprentices – all men – participants had a drafting test, theory exam and a building component to complete in just two days.

“It was stressful,” she said. “I didn’t think I would’ve done so well, but they called my name for second place and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”

MacDonald says more and more women are taking the trades programs at Camosun, specifically in the last couple of years.

“It’s taken a while to get to that point. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better,” he said about the gender balance in the trades. “A lot of (women) really have an affinity for working with their hands, once they (find) they can do the work. It might be because sheet metal is a little bit more creative.”

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, only 5.9 per cent of tradespeople in Canada are women. And 98.1 per cent of sheet metal workers in the country are men.

The numbers don’t bother Wilson, who says she’s treated just like any other employee at Victoria Shipyards.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the guys don’t mind you’re there, as long as you’re working hard,” she said.

The best part, Wilson said, is following a career path she’s proud of, and going to a job she truly enjoys.

“Every day in a coffee shop is the same – it’s all repetitive. But working with your hands, actually building something, it’s always different and you leave at the end of the day with a concrete result,” she said. “I love that.”

To learn more about Camosun’s trades programs, visit camosun.ca/learn/areas/trades-apprenticeships.html.

editor@saanichnews.com