More than 950 eager young women and their parents packed into the Bingemans Conference Centre on Tuesday, April 2 for the sold-out Build a Dream career expo. The event aimed to help introduce female students of all ages to a broader array of career options than they may have otherwise considered, with a special focus on the trades.

The evening kicked off with a keynote address from Jamie McMillan, a journeyman ironworker and boilermaker. She enticed the audience by sharing that there is a way to get paid to go to school: apprenticeships. “I wish someone would have told me when I was your age about this opportunity,” said McMillan.

It was a packed house at the Build a Dream event at Bingemans Conference Centre.

For McMillan, the path to her career was not a straight road, but rather a bumpy and winding course, fraught with roadblocks and personal challenges. After dropping out of high school, she worked a number of jobs, none of which she found fulfilling. A chance meeting with a former high school classmate led her to apply for an apprenticeship with the ironworkers union. “I got a letter two months later in the mail saying ‘Mr. McMillan you have been approved,’” she said with a chuckle. “I started my apprenticeship a few months later and never looked back.”

“You’re going to work one-third of your life so it’s really important to find something you love to do,” McMillan said as she urged the audience to try their hand at the trades while they still have the opportunity to do so, for free, in school. She encouraged them to sign up for that shop class or auto class, adding that “even if you’re the only girl, you never know where that could lead you.”

Nour Hachem-Fawaz, President and Founder of Build a Dream, was blown away by the response the event received in Waterloo Region. “We were so pleased with the response but really, I should have known that this would happen,” she said, noting the strong and growing tech, research and manufacturing sectors in the area.

Waterloo Region Paramedic Jess Park gives Anna Ellis an idea of what it’s like to work in paramedicine during the Build a Dream event.

Their initial goal of 600 attendees was significantly surpassed, with an impressive 500 registrants coming from the Waterloo Region District School Board. Hachem-Fawaz made sure to credit the efforts of David Pope, OYAP Coordinator with the WRDSB, for making the event such a success.

Pope was pleased with the response from the WRDSB community, remarking how enthusiastic the students and their parents were. “I think it was extremely well attended,” he said. “People were really excited about the event.”

Having both parents and students attend was an important factor, Pope explained. For many students, there is a push to attend university or college, but this event allows parents to see trades as an equal alternative for those who are interested in pursuing a career in trades. “It’s not a step-down, that’s your pathway, that’s what you’re aiming for,” he said.

The Build a Dream expo also featured a trade show element, allowing attendees to tour more than 40 exhibitor booths showcasing careers from carpentry to emergency medicine. Anna Ellis, a student from Waterloo Collegiate Institute, said she attended the event to help her pinpoint her career aspirations. “I don’t really know what I want to do as a job,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a paramedic or something in emergency care.”

The event gave Ellis a chance to connect with Region of Waterloo Paramedics, ask them about the job and learn about their day-to-day. Watching Ellis dive in, listening intently as the paramedics showed her the variety of medicine they carry and equipment they train with, it was clear she had found her calling. “I’m definitely really excited about it…I learned a lot,” Ellis said. “I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet these people or talk to them without this night.”

Ellis came away with a lot to think about as she weighs her options for pursuing a career in paramedicine. “A lot of times, there’s pressure to go to university,” she said, adding that for her goal, college could be an option she should now consider more seriously.

Alisha Clarke, a student at Southridge Public School, gets familiar with power tools during the Build a Dream event.

Abi Ruse, a grade 9 student from Preston High School, came to learn more about what it would take to become a Ministry of Natural Resources conservation officer, but ended up discovering new possibilities. “I never thought of welding or plumbing,” Ruse said, adding that while she will still strive towards becoming a conservation officer, she’s interested in learning more about these careers.

High school students weren’t the only ones in attendance. Alisha Clarke, a grade 5 student at Southridge Public School, hadn’t nailed down any firm plans for her career yet, but was enjoying the experience of trying her hand at a few of the options available to her at the Build a Dream expo. “You get to learn new things, you get to experience what you can be when you grow up,” she said.

Jill Juergensen, a grade 11 student from Elmira District Secondary School, summed up her feelings about what attendees took away from the event. “There’s a high demand for women and their roles are important,” she said. “It was a great experience…a lot of girls learned a lot collectively tonight.”

About OYAP

The Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) is a School to Work program that opens the door for students to explore and work in apprenticeship occupations starting in Grade 11 or Grade 12 through the Cooperative Education program.

The goals of OYAP are:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to start training in a skilled trade while completing the requirements for an Ontario Secondary School Diploma
  • To enable students to make the school to work transition by direct entry into apprenticeship training
  • To provide employers with the opportunity to train the skilled workers they require
  • To provide a viable solution to address the problem of skilled tradespeople shortages in general, and specifically the lack of young people joining the trades

About Build a Dream

Founded in 2014, Build a Dream was designed to attract, encourage and empower female students to pursue careers in skilled trades, STEM, emergency response and entrepreneurship.

Today, the non-profit is 100% funded through partners who believe in promoting diversity and inclusion to strengthen the workforce. Build a Dream is able to thrive with ongoing support and continues to offer programs that directly impact communities.

From survey results, employer feedback, and student success stories, Build a Dream is able to witness the positive impacts that its programming makes and will continue to empower young women across the province to make informed career choices.

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