I struck my first arc and realized this was the industry for me.
Fashion design seems like an unlikely path to a career as a union Boilermaker, but it’s exactly where things started for Kayla Vander Molen, who is now a pre-apprentice instructor and welding examiner-in-training at Local 146 (Calgary, Alberta).
But really, the career leap wasn’t too far in some respects. Vander Molen, who began studying fashion design in Ottawa after high school, enjoyed the precision of constructing garments and reading patterns—not completely unlike the blueprints and precision needed to be a skilled Boilermaker welder.
“Shortly after college, I was introduced to welding. I struck my first arc and realized this was the industry for me,” she says. She turned her attention to learning all she could about welding. In addition to enrolling in night classes, she volunteered at a fabrication shop to get an overview of the industry and the welding process.
“Volunteering, in a sense, is free education,” Vander Molen says. “And, I had the opportunity to learn from skilled craftsmen.” As her skills progressed, she sought out new challenges and any courses that could help her learn and improve, eventually taking a full-time welding course in Ottawa and getting her certifications. She was ready to go to work.
But there was a problem.
“As I was applying to lots of different places, there was a common theme,” she says. “I would be told something along the lines of ‘Well, there’s only a men’s washroom on site.’ I got the hint.”
So she changed her approach. At a truck fabrication shop, as she applied for a job, she asked the lead hand to let her volunteer for the day, pointing out that the company could evaluate her work ethic and then decide about her employment at day’s end.
“Before lunchtime, the lead hand came up and asked when I could start,” she says with a laugh.
It didn’t pay much, but it was a start.
A move to Alberta proved to be pivotal for Vander Molen in two ways: It opened the door to the Boilermakers union, and it forced her to take a step back, restarting her education and going through apprenticeship—which ultimately would propel her forward.
Because there was no opportunity for her in Ottawa to indenture as an apprentice, she wasn’t considered a certified welder. So, when Vander Molen was introduced to the Boilermakers union in Alberta, despite her years of experience, she had to begin again at an apprentice level. Ironically, she started out in the apprentice “Work Start” program she now teaches.
“Going through that program really helped me out, and I met some great mentors,” she says. Plus, she finally got to work in the field, which she enjoyed.
But with the cyclical nature of the work, she needed to find ways to stay busy and engaged during the “off season.” She started volunteering at union social events, which led to volunteering at job fairs, informing people about the benefits of becoming a union Boilermaker.
“I was nervous about public speaking at first, but when I saw people getting excited about the opportunities I presented to them, it made me want to get even more involved,” Vander Molen recalls. And, she was thinking about the next move forward: She wanted to become a weld examiner, which she is currently working toward.
Vander Molen was working at a shipyard when she saw the callout for a pre-apprentice instructor position. She could envision herself in that role, and she recognized it as the culmination of everything she’d enjoyed and worked for in her career to that point.
“I decided to apply for it,” she said. It’s the role she’s been in since 2018.
“A speaker at a Women in Trades event I attended a couple years ago said that men feel they only need to be 60% confident before they decide to take on a new role. But for women, we feel the need to be 95% confident before we go for a challenge,” Vander Molen says. “Hearing that has changed my perspective on challenges and how to approach available opportunities. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone to grow as a person and increase your skill sets. I’ve learned that with time and perseverance you’re almost always capable of doing the job.
“I take pride in knowing where I started and where I am today,” she adds. “Being a female Boilermaker, I proudly represent my trade to the best of my ability and feel a sense of responsibility to change lingering gender stereotypes, one shift at time, for the next generation of women and men starting their apprenticeship.
“Every tradesperson working together is a part of the movement that is developing the narrative and making this industry inclusive to all.”
Kayla Vander Molen on being a sister in the Brotherhood
What does it mean to you to be a female Boilermaker? Why did you decide to join the Boilermakers union?
Unions support workers’ rights, gender and racial integration and provide educational courses to enhance the knowledge and skill set of their members. I joined the Boilermakers Local Lodge 146 based on these values.
The support network the Boilermakers provide their apprentices is invaluable, which will always resonate with me. I would not be where I am today without the support of my mentors and co-workers.
Being a member with the Boilermakers has provided me with the diverse experience of working in oil refineries, power plants and shipyards, along with public speaking events geared toward presenting the available opportunities for women and youth interested in entering into the skilled trades.
For many women, the idea of working in the trades does not initially come to mind, because it was not promoted to us during our most influential years. So, we tend to go into more familiar careers—though they don’t always fit our personalities.
What would you like to say to women who are interested in joining the trades?
Being women in the trades, we do stand out! We encounter barriers and challenges, though it is how we confront them that will bring out who we are and who we want to be. On tough days, I would remind myself why I started welding, what was important to me and what I valued. With that train of thought, it kept me moving forward though the good days and the bad. This industry is physically and mentally demanding for everyone, but the empowering feeling you get once you acquire your journeyperson ticket is well worth every early morning shift and every late-night study session.
Supporting women in the trades has become a national movement that is growing quickly. The Tradeswomen Build Nations conference is evidence of that, and it is just the tip of the iceberg.
And, as important as it is to have men supporting women during the transition of inclusion in the skilled trades, it is even more important to have women who support women!