In a time when skilled trades are in such high demand, Ashley Dutchak, a welder graduating with high marks, had trouble getting anyone to give her a chance. After being turned away by companies in other industries, she applied at Cancade CBI Ltd., an AMC member company in Brandon, Manitoba, and felt welcome immediately. Four years later, she has not looked back and is embracing ag manufacturing, with its stability and potential for career advancement.
Dutchak was raised by a single mom on the prairies but has almost no connection to agriculture. Her father, a mechanic, was raised on a mixed farm between Dauphin and Swan River, Manitoba, but knowing her dad was raised on a farm was as close as she had ever come to agriculture before joining Cancade.
After completing high school in 2013, Dutchak started working towards a Bachelor of Business but quickly figured out university was not for her. “That’s not to say I didn’t get good marks. I was just not very happy.” Taking a few years off to reassess while working various jobs, she decided she wanted to be working with her hands building things and enrolled at Assiniboine Community College (ACC) in the welding program.
Dutchak went through a nine-month program for machining and welding, earning her certificate from ACC then completed her three-week practicum at Gabler Welding Ltd. in Carberry, Manitoba. From there, she began to apply for jobs to apprentice.
Barriers to non-traditional skilled tradespeople still exist
I had a lot of trouble finding a place that would give me any opportunity in town, just because I’m a woman,” says Dutchak. Eventually, she changed her name on her resume to her initials and suddenly started getting responses to her applications. She recalls one instance where, based on email communication, she was called for an in-person interview at one company. While she sat waiting to be interviewed, she heard the interviewer tell his receptionist to make an excuse to get rid of her because he wasn’t going to hire a woman.
That sort of experience might cause some people to lose faith in finding a position in manufacturing where she would be both welcomed and appreciated. Dutchak, however, persevered.
Apprenticeship to lead hand
Then she applied to Cancade and immediately felt welcomed. “It was fantastic. Honestly, they’ve treated me so well over the years.”
Asked if she had considered a job in ag manufacturing before being hired at Cancade, Dutchak answered that she hadn’t. “It was the one place in town that actually gave me a chance, and it worked out in my favour. I’m lead hand there now. They have a lot of faith [in me].”
All her years apprenticing were done at Cancade, “They actually pushed me really hard to get it done, she says. Last year in May she attained her Red Seal. Tradespersons successfully passing the Red Seal examination with over 70% receive a Red Seal endorsement on their provincial/territorial trade certificate. The Red Seal indicates that a tradesperson has demonstrated the knowledge required for the national standard in that trade. It is a point of pride in skilled workers, promotes excellence to employers, and facilitates labour mobility. Following that achievement, Dutchak was promoted to lead hand three months later in August 2021.
Dutchak had heard that Cancade was a great company for apprenticeship from the previous lead hand. “He finished his apprenticeship and got his Red Seal right before I got hired, and he ended up being lead hand right before me. It’s a good place for growth, to learn the basics, and build from there.”
Cancade tries to give as many students as possible their workplace practicum. Dutchak says, “We’ll try to make work for them so that they’re able to get their certificate. We’d like to give everybody the opportunity to be able to finish school with that certificate.”
What trade schools can do better to prepare their students
About her experience at Cancade, Dutchak says that everyone was welcoming and friendly, but her apprenticeship was definitely a learning experience. She knew how to weld and was very good at it but, “I had no idea how to put anything together at all because they don’t teach you how to do that in school. I think they are starting to do more of that now.”
To make the school part of trades education better for upcoming welders Dutchak would like to see more emphasis on fabrication. “You have so much education put towards learning how to set a machine and be able to problem solve welding difficulties.” But there needs to be more focus on fabrication. She would like to see students] get to build something from a drawing. “I think people would benefit from that a lot more. I feel like I definitely would have benefited if I had done that in my course for sure.”
Current role as lead hand
In her role as lead hand Dutchak is responsible for solving problems when other employees have difficulty with welds and interpreting drawings. “It’s basically making sure everybody is okay in their workspace and has work during the day.” The shop has between 10 and 15 welders on staff, men and women ranging from late teens to early sixties.
Dutchak thrives on the responsibility of her position, enjoys being able to help and teach people. “Every day is a little bit different. I try to tell them the easiest way to accomplish the task in the fastest time. It’s been wonderful working with Cancade, because everybody was so accepting right from the start. I enjoy my job for sure.”
Working in the shop allows for plenty of variety of projects for Dutchak and the other Cancade welders. If it’s made of aluminium or steel and can sit on the back of a truck or move around on wheels, they build it. From chassis to boxes and bale decks, agriculture and construction kept Dutchak and her team busy throughout the pandemic. “We’ve stayed steady throughout COVID-19 which has been awesome considering how many people were unable to work. We continued to stay running throughout the whole thing.”
A typical week for Dutchak starts out with quality control in the shop. From there, new projects are started, she assigns work, and she will assist anybody needing help to make their job a bit easier. She says her main responsibility is making sure everybody is doing their job as safely and easily as possible, “because you don’t want to stress yourself out at work, right? You should enjoy your job.”
Advice to others, particularly women, considering an ag manufacturing career
Dutchak would recommend a career in ag manufacturing to anyone pondering their career choices. With no ag background needed and the educational expenses far less onerous than for a university degree, it’s a wise choice for someone looking for a rewarding career right out of the gate. “It costs way less than university, and you get to work as you learn. If you’re someone who likes working with their hands, you’re not going to get bored. It’s always going to be something new. You’re going to be learning new things every day. I can’t recommend trades enough.”
“Honestly, I think more people should go into trades for sure. You might do the same thing a couple times in a row, depending on how many orders are in or how many units are in that order, but for the most part, you get to bounce around all over the place, and build different things, which is nice.”
Dutchak urges women considering a trades career not to be intimidated by the hiring process, “Keep trying because it will eventually work out in your favour if you’re good at it and you enjoy it. People will see that and they will appreciate it.” The teachers at ACC will contact Dutchak any time they have a female student who is having problems finding work. “They get hold of me, and we give them a chance at the shop. It’s actually really nice that I’m able to help more women come through and join in the trade.”
Rewards of a career in ag manufacturing
When asked if ag manufacturers open to hiring women are capitalizing on an opportunity that other industries are passing by, Dutchak commented, “Absolutely. 100 percent. I thoroughly enjoy it. I love it! I love my job. I couldn’t recommend joining trades enough.”
“It’s honestly, probably the best job I’ve ever had.” Not a statement to be taken lightly from a person like Dutchak who has worked far more jobs in her young life than many may work in a lifetime.
Looking to the future, Dutchak would like to eventually go back to school. Described by a close friend as the modern-day feminist, she says whatever she ends up doing, the tech and trades side will figure prominently in her life.
This story makes it clear that ag manufacturing is blazing a trail of acceptance and willingness to embrace a changing workforce. Ashley Dutchak’s experience at Cancade backs up a lasting impression that AMC Chair Cor Lodder left when touring Walinga’s Guelph plant at AMC Guelph Expo this past spring. Going through the welding shop, he pointed to one of the welders and said, “That is one of our women welders. Women have incredible attention to detail.”