Breaking down barriers (January 01, 2003)

by James Menzies

EDMONTON, Alta. – The Alberta Fleet Maintenance Supervisor’s Association (AFMSA) has helped several aspiring industrial heavy equipment technologists (IHET) reach their goal, by rewarding top students at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) – and the newest top winner will receive $300 towards her schooling just in time for the final semester.

The 2002 top winner was second-year IHET student, Melissa Alexander.

The association found Alexander demonstrates excellent leadership, commitment and passion for the profession, making her an ideal candidate for the award.

As a woman trying to break into a male-dominated profession, it has been an uphill battle for the single mother who will put the money towards books for the final semester.

“It’s very helpful,” says Alexander. “We’ve got to buy a new set of books in January for our next semester so that’s what it’ll go towards.”

Alexander is one of only two women in her class of future industrial heavy-equipment technologists.

While she just wants to be treated like any of her other classmates, there’s no denying that penetrating this male-dominated profession won’t be easy.

“The instructors at NAIT are amazing – they don’t look at us as a girl, they look at us as a student and they treat all of us as equals which is what I want,” says Alexander. “NAIT as a whole is just excellent, I couldn’t have picked a better school to go to.”

Unfortunately, even though the technical school is equipping her with the skills needed to work as an industrial heavy-equipment technologist, finding a shop willing to hire a woman is another challenge altogether.

Last summer Alexander found that out first-hand. She sent out more than 100 resumes in search of summer employment with a heavy-equipment shop but received just one call as a result – from an old-school shop manager who called to tell her there’s no place in the shop for a woman.

While that call was somewhat demoralizing, Alexander says she has met a lot of great people working in the industry and will continue to pursue her goal.

“It’s mostly the old-school guys who don’t think that women should be in this profession and I disagree with that,” says Alexander.

“I think that if you have the qualifications and you can do that job and you can put your heart into it, then it shouldn’t be dependent on sex, age, religion or anything else.”

Despite the lack of response to her resume, Alexander managed to land a summer job with Jade Equipment, thanks to some connections she had in the industry. There, she disassembled road graders and refurbished their parts.

It’s a job that comes naturally for her. Alexander has always been interested in tearing apart equipment and putting it back together.

She helped her father fix cars while growing up and has rebuilt a Detroit 671 engine.

In fact, her boyfriend is a farmer, and she often finds herself fixing his balers and other heavy-duty farm equipment.

“I’ve always been interested in mechanics,” she says, noting she is particularly interested in working with heavy-duty truck components.

The course requires her to learn the ins and outs of everything from electronics, HVAC systems and transmissions, as well as math and chemistry. Because she opted against following the four-year apprenticeship route into the industry, Alexander and her colleagues must face other barriers as well. They’re in a constant battle for shop time with apprentices and some shop managers are hesitant to hire individuals who take the more academically intense approach to joining the ranks of industrial heavy-equipment technologists.

The IHET program is only two years in length, but it’s a very busy two years involving a lot of studying and hands-on training.

“We do a lot of theory,” says Alexander. “You have to find someone who will hire you with the patience of knowing you know the theory behind everything but you may have to ask a few questions before fixing it the first time.”

Following graduation in April, Alexander hopes she can turn her passion for working with heavy-duty trucks and equipment, into a full-time career.

“There’s going to be a shortage (of technologists) soon because a lot of the people who started in this trade are getting older and they’re going to start retiring and we’re going to need new people,” says Alexander.

She hopes someone will give her a chance to prove herself, and thanks to the AFMSA she’s one step closer to making that dream a reality.

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