Having a 'profession' is a funny thing. We all have to work (or at least most of us do), and with so many careers out there it can be difficult to choose. Often the one we're initially drawn to isn't where we end up, discovering along the way that it wasn't that well suited to us after all. (Shout out to my 17 year old self who thought she wanted to be a fashion designer). Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to figure out where our strengths lie, and that's okay. Leigh Wall may have taken her time to get here, but make no mistake, she's here now. As a poster girl for women in trades, she makes a strong case for intelligent, capable women everywhere. And yes, she's talking to YOU!
'It’s amazing in this day and age that a young women still feels limited in her options. This is why I love talking to high school students. I’ve had girls tell me they have no idea what they want to do after high school, and after I say, ‘Have you ever considered a career in trades?’ they’re like ‘Sorry, what?’ When I tell them they could be a mechanic they reply with, ‘Well isn’t that a guys job?’ and I’m all, ' Girl, No!’ (laughs).
THEN AND NOW
For the majority of my career I was a legal assistant. At one point I went back to school and studied public relations and worked in marketing and communications, but then the economy took a downturn, I moved to Vancouver and ended up being a legal assistant again. I never want to knock that job— it provides good benefits, good money, it just wasn’t for me. At one point I was laid off and thought great, here's an opportunity to make a total career change because I’m not satisfied. I started asking myself, ‘What do I want to do?’ Because I had been laid off, I wanted to find an industry that was really in demand, somewhere there were a lot of job prospects and something that was not going to result in another job loss. So after hearing the BC government talk up the trades for a few years, I thought, "I’m going to get a trade." I had no experience in trades whatsoever, although I’ve always been a creative, hands-on kind of person. I started researching the different trades that were out there and reading the skill sets involved for each, and mechanics was just very appealing to me. Heavy duty mechanics specifically is in really high demand and when I looked at the statistics of men vs. women in the trade, it actually said the percentage of women was zero. Which is of course inaccurate but obviously the numbers were so low that they didn’t even register. I figured, if I wanted to get a job and keep a job, then I had to stand out and being a women heavy duty mechanic clearly accomplished that.
Living The Life You Love
I started my career in trades at Vancouver Community College with the pre-apprenticeship program and then continued on with an apprenticeship at a shop where I worked for a year and a half before coming back to VCC to work as a recruiter. What I’ve realized is, as much as I love being a mechanic and pulling wrenches, I really love telling people about it and sharing my experience. In my current role I get to talk to prospective students at career fairs and speak at public events and those are things I really enjoy doing. I’ll be going back to school in May to complete level 2 of my apprenticeship and in the meantime I’m hoping to continue earning hours towards it somewhere while still working my recruiting job. I love in my recruiting job how I get to do so many different things and work with a team who supports me in finishing my apprenticeship, they see that its a crucial part of what I do for the college. In recruiting people and saying, ‘This is a great program' I’m saying it because I genuinely believe it and have gone through it myself. I’m not doing it because of a pay cheque, I’m doing it because I truly feel passionate about it and love it and it’s just a bonus that I get paid.
During my pre-apprenticeship program, I fixed my own truck a lot and it was just so empowering — for a lack of a better word and at the risk of sounding cheesy — but it’s true! It made me believe I can literally do anything that I actually apply myself to. I even bought a truck when I was in the pre-app program for $700, and fixed it up and sold it for $1700. To be able to take something that feels so daunting and to just do it, is so rewarding. Now I feel really proud all the time and most importantly, I feel more fulfilled. I love the feeling of seeing a job completed from start to finish and being like, 'I just fixed that’ and watching the truck drive out of the shop. I find a lot of satisfaction in that.
Movers and Shakers
Any girl out there doing something untraditional, and doing it well is super inspiring to me. When I first started my program, we got the day off to go to a Skills Canada competition and I met a Red Seal certified female heavy duty mechanic. She’s been doing it for maybe 10 years now, and I just loved her attitude, I loved everything about her. She had been a welder in the prairies, and had moved to Fort MacMurray and was operating equipment but she wanted to be a mechanic. So she went into this shop and kept applying and bugging them and finally she went in and was like, ‘I’m going to do this job for two weeks, for free, just to show you.’ She’s great at what she does, and now she works with Skills Canada a lot promoting trades and getting the younger generation engaged.
In general, people need to take more risks and step outside of their comfort zone. Lots of people assume I grew up around cars, or that growing up my dad must have taught me and the answer is no, not at all. This was totally new to me. I was in a class of sixteen, I was the only female, and I had no previous experience. At first I felt like I had a lot more work do than some of the guys, but some of them had also never touched a tool before. And you know what, I did it, and I ended up loving it. Making a change is possible, you just have to commit to it.
I feel like if at the end of the day this doesn’t end up being a career for me and my life takes a different turn, I have gained a lot of valuable skills I can use in my everyday life. I mean hey, I can fix my own car, at least a mechanic can’t pull the wool over my eyes (laughs).'
Interviewed and photographed by Tianna Grey on 03.07.2016; photos otherwise marked.
Follow Leigh here
Find out more about Transportation Trades courses at VCC here.