The Red Bench helps women develop abilities, confidence for skilled trades

On a Sunday in March, at a workshop in south Edmonton, a group of workers in overalls and face shields hunch over tables, as sparks fly in one corner, hammers thump in another and metal grates on metal in a third.

It’s loud and looks like any other workshop, except every worker is a woman. 

The shop is part of a new membership-based initiative called The Red Bench, which aims to get women and members of the LGBT community employed in skilled trades, an area where they are generally underrepresented. 

University of Alberta students Mackenzi Johnston and Jolene Borrelli started the initiative.

“I know when I was younger, when I was trying to explore the welding trade, I could’ve really use a space like this, because I got so discouraged from the trade, just from the environment, the culture,” Johnston told CBC’s Edmonton AM on Sunday. 

6:02We visit The Red Bench, an inclusive space for women and LGBTQ people curious about the skilled trades.

Two University of Alberta students, Mackenzi Johnston and Jolele Borrelli, have started a new initiative called The Red Bench. It’s designed to get more women employed in the skilled trades, an area where they are greatly underrepresented. Edmonton AM visited the space off Gateway Boulevard, to learn more. 6:02

With most skilled trades dominated by men — women make up only five per cent of the industry, according to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum — women can feel intimidated going into these work spaces, Johnston said.

“Me and Jo knew that we needed to create a space that was actually comfortable, that was actually safe, that was actually conducive to learning for people like us,” Johnston said.

A sense of self

Aleeza Batool, a fifth-year materials engineering college student at the workshop, said companies aren’t prepared for female workers as many don’t have separate change rooms or bathrooms. 

“When you feel like you can’t ask questions, when you feel like you’re being talked down to … that’s already on top of other things, like sexual harassment, discrimination, not being able to get the benefits that you need to be able to go on maternity leave and things like that,” Batool said.

Johnston used to run welding sessions at the university in November 2019 which Borrelli and six or seven other women attended.

She noticed the women not only honed their skill, but became more confident and found a sense of self. The sessions were coming along when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down in March 2020.

“Jolene and I both just couldn’t get over how amazing the experience it was and how special it was to watch these women develop their confidence,” she said.

They decided to start their own community workshops and The Red Bench was born. The two spent the rest of the pandemic setting up the workshops, including designing a user-friendly website.

In December 2021, they started accepting members, with 41 people having joined so far. 

Members of The Red Bench, left to right: Tegan Rogalsky, Aleeza Batool, Jolene Borrelli, Gilian Tanton, Shanon Lohner, Mackenzi Johnston. (Pippa Reed/CBC)

The first workshop, which began in February, concludes on Sunday. 

Johnston said the workshops are open to people of all skill levels. The workshops go through the basics so even beginners can join.

“The nice thing is, is that the women who come in, who have more experience than the people who are brand new to the trade, they can offer some guidance or some mentorship,” she said.

Their next workshop begins in April.

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