Bern, Nor, and Rebecca

Empowering Women in Trades: The Impact of the Women Unlimited Program 

Written by Michaela Epifano, Cape Breton Partnership

To be a tradesperson is to be a master of your craft, a problem solver, and a creator. Traditionally, the trades have been male-dominated, shaped by societal norms that often-deterred women from participation. However, the Women Unlimited program challenges this notion by actively reshaping the narrative of women in the trades, nurturing their skills, and serving as a bridge to new opportunities. As we explore the stories of two former participants and the program’s dedicated leaders, we witness the impact of Women Unlimited. 

Women Unlimited is a free fourteen-week exploration program, offered through Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), designed to help women explore career options in trades and technology while providing supports to help participants succeed. It covers various trades such as carpentry, plumbing, electrical, metal fabrication, welding, refrigeration and air conditioning, industrial instrumentation, and more. They also explore technology programs like information technology, including networking, programming, and cybersecurity. 

Women Unlimited participants on tour at a construction site. Image Contributed.

Bernadette “Bern” Johnson, serving as Program Coordinator, and Noreen “Nor” MacKinnon, in her role as Program Navigator, have dedicated over a decade to the Women Unlimited program at NSCC Marconi Campus. Their unwavering commitment involves guiding participants along their journey and contributing to the creation of a promising future for all who engage with the program. 

“In the early days, it was challenging to find women on construction sites. We had to actively seek them out. Now, witnessing women thriving in various roles in the trades is something we’re proud to see often,” shares Bern. “You know, it’s quite emotional for me because we currently have a number of women in apprenticeship, succeeding in their trade, and it’s incredible to reflect on the progress.” 

The Women Unlimited program began in the town of Bridgewater in 2006 and was introduced to Unama’ki – Cape Breton In 2011. It started out as a not-for-profit and in 2021 transitioned into Nova Scotia Community College. Today, it is offered at three campuses across the province; Akerley Campus in Dartmouth, the Institute of Technology Campus in Halifax, and Marconi Campus in Sydney, soon to be the Sydney Waterfront Campus, set to open in September 2024. The program emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusion, ensuring that women have a supportive environment to explore and pursue their interests.

“Our support is comprehensive, acting as a wraparound,” says Nor. “We’re there for that evening call, during apprenticeship training, and even when immediate needs like food cards arise.” 

The program places a strong emphasis on providing personalized support for each participant. Nor and Bern warmly emphasize that their door is always open, going the extra mile by extending their support to women attending classes across NSCC, regardless of their involvement in the program. 

Bernadette “Bern” Johnson, Rebecca Penney, and Noreen “Nor” MacKinnon standing outside the Women Unlimited office at Nova Scotia Community College Marconi Campus

“It’s all about supporting each other, and what’s fantastic is that it’s not a competition. Everyone is on their unique path, doing their own thing. If someone seems to be struggling, just reach out, have a conversation with us – that’s what makes it wonderful,” Bern shares smiling. 

“Although we have 20 women in the classroom together, we see each of them as unique individuals,” Nor continues. “Every journey is different—some might take ten years to get their red seal, while others have a more straightforward path. Our support is always here.” 

That support is something Rebecca Penney came to cherish as she navigated the plan for her future. 

Rebecca Penney standing in her station in the Electrical Construction and Industrial program classroom.

“In September of 2022, I decided to go back to school. I went to Nova Scotia Works to explore funding opportunities and learned about the Women Unlimited program,” shares Rebecca Penney, electrical student and former Women Unlimited participant.  

As Rebecca learned more about the program, her excitement quickly grew, especially considering her interest in electrical work due to her father’s influence. But, before Rebecca discovered Women Unlimited, she chased after different dreams.  

“When I was younger, I really loved music, which led me to pursue an education in music, specializing in arts and music business at NSCC,” Rebecca says. “When the pandemic struck, the music industry took a hit, leaving me with no opportunities.”  

For three years, Rebecca worked to find her footing again, which happened to be a calling back to her childhood.  

“I remember when I was about six years old, my dad started teaching me how to use tools like a screwdriver and explaining various aspects of construction.”  

From understanding how a switch works to grasping concepts like drywall installation and window placement, Rebecca’s father shared a wealth of knowledge with her. Little did she know, it was the foundation of who she’d become today. 

“I came to the realization that my true calling might be in the trades. I’ve always been drawn to hands-on work, and I now believe it’s where I am meant to be. Although I love music, at the core of it, this was what I was meant to do, and I love it.”  

Rebecca enrolled in the Electrical Construction and Industrial program in September of 2023 after completing the Women Unlimited program last spring.  

“My favorite part of this program is definitely being in shop and putting all of the theory and everything that we learn in class to practice,” she shares passionately. “Physically putting the wires together and everything on the wall and then stepping back and being like, ‘Wow, I did that,’ it’s just an amazing feeling.” 

Throughout the fourteen-week program, Rebecca made lasting friendships and formed valuable connections with many tradespeople across multiple industries. Often, Women Unlimited teams up with industry partners like the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency and the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council, partnering with them to help women learn more about the resources and opportunities available throughout the region. 

“The support from Nor and Bern, the network I worked to grow, and all the friends I’ve made; I probably wouldn’t be as confident as I am here today if I didn’t go through the Women Unlimited program.” 

Thanks to Women Unlimited, Rebecca not only rediscovered her love for the trades, but also found her stride excelling in the program. Today, she serves as a mentor to participants who, like her, are navigating their journey. This program goes beyond simply introducing women to trades; it’s about rewriting stories.  

For Violet Ross, it unveiled a newfound passion she never imagined possible. 

Violet Ross standing in the garage at OK Tire North Sydney

“After graduating from high school, I enrolled at Cape Breton University. Initially, I pursued nursing but later realized it wasn’t the right fit for me,” shares Violet. “After some time away from school, I returned to CBU for a Bachelor of Science degree, thinking of using it as a steppingstone to pursue criminology, but found it wasn’t what I wanted either. It was during this period that I learned about Women Unlimited.” 

Finding your lifelong passion can often be a daunting task, a journey familiar to many of us. Fortunately for Violet, the program takes participants through a diverse range of trades, giving her a chance to discover what she is most interested in. 

“I was indecisive about my career path. I also knew I’d preferred hands-on learning over the traditional classroom settings. This program seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore different options without committing to one immediately.” 

When she visited an automotive shop as part of the program, she instantly felt a connection. 

“It resonated with me so strongly that I couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting to pursue it further,” Violet shares passionately. “I think part of my interest in automotive stemmed from my love of puzzles. I enjoy piecing things together and problem-solving, which I found in criminology and nursing as well. In nursing, diagnosing a patient’s condition involves identifying symptoms and determining the underlying issue, like troubleshooting with cars. It’s about analyzing what’s happening, testing different theories, and piecing together the solution.” 

Violet has since graduated from the Automotive Service and Repair Program at NSCC Marconi Campus, working alongside her co-workers at OK Tire North Sydney, who she describes as hilarious and caring. 

Without the program, Violet believes she would have pushed herself to complete university. Before joining Women Unlimited, she had reservations about entering the automotive trade because she felt uncertain about being a woman in that field as she lacked having a female role model in this, or any, trade. However, once she became a participant of the program, her perspective shifted. 

“I saw women are actually in the trades, and how open and accepting everybody is. It’s not like it used to be – how women were told, ‘You can’t do it’,” shares Violet. “Even in my workplace, I haven’t experienced any problems with people thinking I can’t do my job because I’m a woman. Instead, I’m praised for what I do by both customers and colleagues – I hear people all the time say, ‘there’s a woman in the trades, that’s awesome,’” she shares with a smile. 

Like Rebecca, Violet now acts as a mentor for participants going through the program, and the shop door is always open to speak with women of any age about her experience. 

“I remember my first day in the Automotive Service Repair Program at NSCC. I was late because I had to drop my daughter off on her first day of grade primary. So, it was bad enough walking in late to your first day of school, but I was also the only woman in the class,” Violet began. “But then, I reminded myself that we’re all here to learn. I started to talk more and ask questions, noticing others did the same. Over time, the initial intimidation faded away, especially as I became more comfortable in the program. Everyone in the class, including our amazing teacher, Dave Scott, treated me just like anyone else.” 

Violet has one key piece of advice for women looking to enter the trades: “Don’t let intimidation hold you back. It’s your life, so own it.” 

Rebecca has comforting words to offer as well: “You’re in a safe space. They don’t expect you to be perfect and I find that really helps in a classroom setting. You’re safe to mess up or you’re safe to celebrate your accomplishments. It’s a wonderful place to be.” 

Each participant’s story embodies the program’s impact. From Rebecca and Violet to the women who have preceded them and those yet to come, alongside the leadership sending each woman off to write her own success story, a spark of inspiration ignites, illuminating the path for countless others to follow. 

To learn more about Women Unlimited, click here

Comments are closed.