Jason K. Firth, C.E.T.

Instrumentation, Control, and Automation

Women in trades and technology

Dec 202014

December 20, 2014

I'm Jason Firth.

I'd like to suggest today, that women should look more at the trades and technology as a career choice.

Of course, there's lots of people right now suggesting that. There's people who are way smarter, and way richer, and way more powerful suggesting that. Obviously, another voice isn't really that useful right now.

So I'd like to give the one thing I have that many of those people don't: A view from the floor. I'm going to tell you why it makes a lot of sense to get into the trades and technology, I'm going to tell you about some of the challenges you can expect to face, and I'm going to tell you why the trades and technology is about a lot more than wires and ports.

Let's start off by by looking at why the trades and technology are a great choice for anyone. Many jobs in the trades and technology are highly skilled, highly paid jobs that tend to have great benefit plans as well. Even tradesmen who lose their jobs, often find new ones way faster than others. Besides that, you get respect: If there's one thing that people respect, it's "I can't do this thing, but this person can, and I need them."

Besides that, the trades can be really fulfilling. Imagine, at the end of the day, looking at a building you've helped build, or light, or control. Imagine working in maintenance and being the person who solves the problem nobody else could, or getting a plant running that was down, costing tens of thousands of dollars an hour.

As for why women in particular should be interested, let's start at the beginning of your career: When any woman I know says "I'm thinking of going back to school", I immediately suggest taking an engineering technology course. As a starving student looking at scholarships and bursaries, it was immediately obvious that there's thousands of dollars up for grabs in scholarships and bursaries for women in technology. There are plenty of other options for women, and many sort of "Traditionally female" choices out there, but why pay full price to follow what others do if you can get a helping hand to try something different? Besides that, taking an unconventional path has other benefits: Companies want to hire women for trades and technology positions. The problem is that the applicants aren't there! The rewards are there for someone who wants to take the risk of doing something different.

Now, it isn't always going to be easy.

Imagine being the first human on an alien planet, and the aliens don't know how to be around a human. They might behave quite inappropriately at times. Unfortunately, because technology and the trades are so male-dominated, you get people who don't know how to act with women in the workplace. I have to admit, you'll sometimes be treated unfairly based on your gender. It isn't acceptable, but it is real. It takes courage to lead, and the only way things will get better is for more women to engage.

Another thing that is true, is that some trades take more physical strength than others, and that can put women at a disadvantage. If you're a millwright, you might be asked to really strain against a wrench. If you're an electrician, you might be asked to pull really large cables. In these cases, you're going to have to rely on your team to help, or find a different way to do the job. Not every job is like that. Instrument technicians don't tend to need much brute strength for most of their jobs, and you don't need arms like tree trunks to use a mouse and keyboard to draw in CAD.

But one criticism that I don't believe is true is the image of trades and technology as a cold, inhuman field, all ports and wires and bolts, disconnected from people.

I've always been told that it isn't just important that you can do these huge things, but that you can help others understand it too. Besides being a person who can do things, you need to be someone who can teach others, to help better understand what you can do for them.

Consider the largest company in the world right now by market cap: Apple. Steve Jobs wasn't the first person to make a home computer, but his company made the home computer accessible for human beings. They weren't the first to create a smart phone, but they were the first to make it accessible for human beings. They weren't the first to make an MP3 player or on-line music store, but they were the first to make it accessible for human beings. It's important to be good at your trade or the technology, but it's equally important to be able to connect the technology with the people who aren't you.

I personally spend a lot of time repairing and calibrating instruments, tuning loops, running cables, designing systems, and programming. However, I spend more and more time working with people who aren't instrumentation and control specialists trying to help them understand what my team can do for them, or helping people learn exactly what tools we provide and how they can use those tools to help themselves, or describing to non-technical folks work we've done. The genius who doesn't deal with people probably isn't going to succeed compared to a person with less technical skill who is nonetheless willing to work with other people and other groups, and really help those groups make the best use of instrumentation, controls, and automation for the benefit of the organization.

There's no reason why women should count themselves out of that.

Thanks for reading!

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