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Changing the face of Canadian Shipbuilding, one female apprentice at a time

As part of International Women in Engineering Day, Marine People and the IMarEST, are searching the globe for enterprising female engineers to share their experiences.  We want to showcase the diverse opportunities open to women in the sector, and help encourage the next generation of female engineers.  Despite many initiatives, the UK is stubbornly stuck around the 9% mark, and this percentage tends to be even lower in maritime.  So, through our research, we were really excited to find out about the Women Unlimited Programme in partnership with Irving Shipbuilding, which is a fantastic case study in Canada, to attract females in to shipbuilding trades, a sector which in the UK, attracts far fewer engineers than the 9% cited earlier.

The Women Unlimited Association is a not-for-profit women’s organisation in Nova Scotia that promotes the full participation of women in trades and technology.  They are a practical organisation, working with industry, governments, educational institutions and the community to address the systemic barriers that limit the participation of diverse women in engineering trades and technology.

We contacted Doreen Parsons, CEO of Women Unlimited, to discuss the need for such a programme and she commented: “Women Unlimited has been working to support diverse women to rise to their full potential in the skilled trades and technologies for more than a decade. We have developed many collaborative partnerships, but none as ground-breaking as this one with Irving Shipbuilding, which is among the largest employers of tradespeople in Nova Scotia. As these talented women begin their apprenticeship journey at the Halifax Shipyard, we’ve already started to prepare 20 new women to join their ranks. We’re changing the face of shipbuilding through an innovative partnership that works!”

As the most modern Shipbuilding facility in North America, Irving are passionate that their workforce represents the community in which they are based, and that they attract the best talent for the shipyard.  This desire led to a partnership with Women Unlimited and Nova Scotia Community College, to design a unique programme for under and unemployed women.

This opportunity allowed the women to gain genuine qualifications, and hands on experience as part of a 2-year training programme.  The programme encompassed a 14-week career exploration programme, followed by a College welding or metal fabrication diploma.  Successful graduates who met the employment eligibility criteria at the end of the course were then offered permanent positions by Irving Shipbuilding.

Fast forward 2 years and the first set of graduates complete their training this month, just in time for International Women in Engineering Day.  Before starting the programme, many of these women had little or no exposure to metal trades or shipbuilding.  Now, thanks to this programme, and their own hard work, they are about to begin their apprenticeships at the Halifax Shipyard.  Here they will be part of an enterprising team building the Royal Navy’s future fleet, alongside world leading shipbuilders, and state of the art tools and technology.  In return, Irving have a set of highly skilled, committed apprentices to help them deliver a world class project.

We contacted Brian McCarthy, VP, Human Resources from Irving Shipbuilding to discuss the benefit to the company, he commented: “We’re proud to partner with organisations like Women Unlimited to create opportunities for underrepresented groups in shipbuilding.  This is not just about hiring women or other specific groups. It’s about hiring the best shipbuilders to build Canada’s future fleet.  If there are not equal opportunities for everyone, then we’re not getting the best shipbuilders”.

No story would be complete without hearing from the apprentices themselves, and nothing could sum up the opportunity more than Denise Watters, one of the successful 2017 graduates who commented: Going through Women Unlimited was amazing. It gave me the support that I needed, whether it be child care, transportation, or tutoring even. This is my golden ticket, my golden egg. This is security for my family, and me staying local to home so that my family can be raised here. Knowing that I had the position here at Irving Shipbuilding at the end was amazing. It was the icing on the cake”

This programme was one of many initiatives that were made possible by the 2012 establishment of the Irving Shipbuilding Centre of Excellence at Nova Scotia Community College. The Centre of Excellence works to create an entry point for underrepresented groups to train for careers and benefit from Canada’s revitalised shipbuilding industry.

In addition to Irving Shipbuilding and Women Unlimited, this programme was made possible by the support of many partners including the Province of Nova Scotia, the Canadian Welding Association Foundation, and Unifor Canada.

Undoubtedly the execution of a programme like this takes organisation, funds and a genuine commitment.  However, the outcome has been so worth the investment.  Fifteen women have a new, exciting and progressive career working on a world class project, and Irving Shipbuilding have a team of skilled and committed apprentices in a seriously skills short market.

The lack of progress made in increasing the number of females in engineering in the UK over the last few years, despite the positive rhetoric, means that talking about the issue is no longer enough.  Companies, influencers and organisations in partnership, must start putting programmes like this in place to make a material difference.  It’s in the best interest of UK engineering.

For more information on the programme have a look at and