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Meet Vale millwright apprentice Kendra Liinamaa

November 3, 2021

Kendra Liinamaa is helping to blazing a trail for women in skilled trades. Photo: Kendra Liinamaa

Four generations of Kendra Liinamaa’s family have worked at Vale (formerly Inco), and now she’s breaking new ground as a millwright apprentice, helping to forge new pathways for women in trades. 

Kendra currently works at our Nickel Refinery in the IPC building. She started as a co-op student in August 2020 and was offered an apprenticeship that began in October. She described her position as a “jack of all trades,” and “generally if it moves, we diagnose and fix it.” There are specializations within the millwright trade, she clarified, but right now “I’m basically learning the ropes.”  

Kendra is a graduate of Cambrian College, where she completed the Mechanical Engineering Technician Industrial Maintenance Program. Although she had taken welding and auto all through high school, she wasn’t considering a career in the trades; instead, she was all set to take graphic arts or psychology for her post-secondary education. 

Then it all changed 

But her thinking changed after a fateful co-op placement at a sign shop, where it occurred to her that perhaps she didn’t really want a desk job after all, and then she attended an annual skills competition at Cambrian College that encourages women to enter the trades. 

“Trades were starting to look good,” she recalled. “Companies were looking to hire women, and I like being physically active.” So, off to Cambrian she went, and she’s never looked back. 

Kendra is now working towards her four-year certification, most of the time shadowing another millwright. “I often work alongside the journeymen, sometimes they will watch while I perform maintenance tasks, and they are always available for any questions or guidance.”

Millwright apprentice and now, panelist 

Not only is Kendra working hard on accumulating her much-needed apprenticeship hours, she is also paying it forward by taking time to encourage other women to enter the trades, which have been traditionally dominated by men. 

This year she was a panelist in a virtual Women in Trades Panel Discussion on October 19, hosted by Cambrian, which was held prior to the Jill of All Trades event that took place on October 28. The Women in Trades Panel focused on challenges women face and common incorrect assumptions some people, including women themselves, have about women in skilled trades.

One well-worn refrain is around strength. “Some women say that they aren’t strong enough, which is so silly because no one is strong enough to do half the important jobs we do at Vale. As maintenance personnel, we get lots of hoisting and rigging training to use mechanical leverage to our advantage – things like cranes, power tools and hydraulic torque wrenches.

During the panel discussion, Kendra told the audience: “You have to remember that women in trades enhances diversity in ways that couldn’t be imagined before. For example, women generally have smaller hands, which is helpful when you need to reach into tight places to remove bolts.” 

Time for a change

Not surprisingly it’s the little things that can rankle the most. Having appropriate change rooms and shower facilities top the list, as well as having options for work clothes in all sizes and shapes. Both have been relatively quick to fix at Vale, and employees like Kendra were consulted in the process.  

“My colleagues and I were asked by management what kind of accommodations the next women’s change room should have at the Nickel Refinery as they update and make more space for women hires.”

For Kendra, the most important thing for anyone considering a career in trades is the ability and eagerness to learn. “If you came in and told me you didn’t know what a wrench was, I might laugh a little at first, but it wouldn’t matter for a second if you showed me you want to learn what it is and how to use it. I’d be honoured to show you and then, one day, we could joke about how far we’ve come.” 

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