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More women should join the skilled trades now: 'Blue-collar CEO'

With hundreds of thousands of women still out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CEO of a Canadian construction company hopes more women will consider entering male-dominated skilled trades.

"We have a systemic trade shortage right now," says Mandy Rennehan, the founder and chief executive of Freshco, a construction company that specializes in retail maintenance. "That's why I'm focusing on trying to get more women into trades."

According to an RBC report released last week, nearly half a million women who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic had not returned to work as of January. The report said many of these women worked in low-skilled service jobs in sectors that have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and their work future remains uncertain.

This is where Rennehan hopes the skilled trades industry comes in.

Rennehan – who calls herself the "Blue-Collar CEO"– wants more women will follow her footsteps and consider careers in the skilled trades. She says that skilled trade workers have been undervalued and disrespected in society, and wants to overcome the stigmas associated with blue-collar work so that careers in the skilled trades are promoted with the same enthusiasm of white-collar jobs.

According to a 2019 report from Statistics Canada, increasing women's participation in skilled trades "has been identified as a means of creating a more diverse labour force, improving women's wages and fully utilizing women's skills." The RBC report also reiterated that "creating accessible and targeted training programs will be key to get workers back into the labour market."

Rennehan is a self-taught trade worker who first became interested in construction when she was just 10 years old. She created a job for herself, sneaking out at night while her parents were sleeping to catch fish for lobster fishers in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. She used the money she earned to buy tools from the local hardware store, a decision that sparked a lifelong interest in the trades.

"That's where it all started," she said. "I don't know where the fascination with construction came from, I could never explain it to you. But it was in my blood and so was entrepreneurship."

By the time she turned 19, Rennehan had founded Freshco, a construction company that now specializes in retail maintenance (not to be confused, she emphasizes, with the grocery store of the same name). Today, Freshco has grown from serving local companies in Nova Scotia to working with some of the world's most recognizable brands, including Lululemon, Nike, Apple, and Tiffany & Co., helping remodel and maintain their retail locations.

Being real and being authentic has truly padded my bottom line.Mandy Rennehan, founder, Freshco

She credits the company's success in part to hard work and tenacity – Freshco has not relied on advertising to recruit new clients – as well having a team of authentic employees, something that she says is missing in corporate Canada.

"It's been missing for a long time... I truly believe it has stunted the growth of a lot of talent," she said. "Being real and being authentic has truly padded my bottom line."

Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.

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