The only female in CAD graduating class continues to sweep up awards

By Gabrielle Piche

The only woman in this year’s Manufacturing Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) graduating class can add a Lieutenant Governor’s Medal to the list of awards and bursaries she’s received.

Jessica Burzminski, 28, accepted the medal at her winter convocation in February. Students receive this award based on their character, academic achievement and involvement in community activities. 

Jessica Burzminski, right, poses with Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon after receiving the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal on Feb. 4./PHOTO PROVIDED BY JESSICA BURZMINSKI

The medal comes after Burzminski received a gold medal for the highest GPA in the college’s Manufacturing Technician program, which she took before the CAD course. She beat out her classmates — all of whom were male.

Red River College (RRC) also awarded Burzminski with the Women in Trades bursary twice, once for each program.

“I felt like I had to prove myself,” Burzminski said.

She’s been the only female in her trades classes for most of her three years at RRC. There was another girl in the Manufacturing Technician program when Burzminski started, but she dropped out.

Burzminski knew a girl in Precision Metal Machining, and her communications teacher was a woman. Otherwise, Burzminski was surrounded by men.

Roughly five per cent of students in the college’s skilled trades programs are female. The number of women entering the college’s skilled trades courses has increased about four to five per cent over the past 10 years, said Derek Kochenash, the dean of Skilled Trades and Technology.

“It’s still a man’s world,” Burzminski said.

“You get the people that look at you and go ‘You’re — you’re what? You’re a machinist?’” she said. “It’s something different out of a girl’s mouth, to say that’s what they do.”

Burzminski operated machines like lathes and mills in Saskatchewan for nearly four years before beginning courses at RRC. She said her prior experience and the teachers’ instructions helped her stay on top of schoolwork.

Sometimes, Burzminski felt like she’d get comments in class from peers because she was a girl, she said.

“There was a couple times where they were like, ‘No, that’s not how you do it,’” she said. “I always just proved them wrong.”

Burzminski tutored international students in computer numerical control (CNC) theory and was part of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ cheer squad while working, coaching and being in school full-time.

“I would love to see more girls in the industry because it’s a very interesting thing to do,” she said.

Kochenash wrote his master’s thesis on women in trades. He became interested in the topic after working in construction and becoming a dad to two girls, he said.

“It sort of dawned on me that during those 15 years working in the construction sector, I hadn’t worked with any women,” Kochenash said, adding that he’d come across one or two.

He joined the board of the Office to Advance Women Apprentices Manitoba, a federally funded organization that began this year.

“(RRC is) very much at the table to hear about best practices, to find ways that we may be able to support our females that come to the trades programs,” Kochenash said.

He said he wants to hire more female trades instructors and managers, but there hasn’t been many applying.

“It’s as early as kindergarten where some of these young girls will eliminate any of the skilled trades as options,” Kochenash said.

He listed parents, teachers and media as influences into young girls’ decisions. The real way to get more women in trades — and more people in general — is to remove the stereotypes around skilled trades jobs, such as the jobs being dirty and too physical, Kochenash said.

RRC has a summer camp for girls aged 12 to 14 to promote careers in skilled trades and technology. Girls Exploring Trades and Technology camp has run for 13 summers. Last July, the campers built pipe desk lamps and made copper lampshades. They learned bits of carpentry, plumbing, electrical work and painting, among other things.

Jessica Burzminski, right, shakes Lt.-Gov. Janice Filmon’s hand at graduation on Feb. 4./PHOTO PROVIDED BY JESSICA BURZMINSKI

Burzminski was not interested in trades until she started working as a machine operator in Saskatchewan. Now, she loves it, and she encourages other women to try the industry.

“Just break those barriers down and everything’s fair game,” she said.