Jenifer St-Hilaire, a spark leading the charge
November 11, 2021
In Québec, female electricians represent 1.79% of all electricians working on construction sites (CCQ, 2019). While this number is still low, Québec is making progress. In fact, this trend can be noted in all construction sectors: over 4,300 women were active on sites in 2019, compared to 2,289 in 2015 (+ 88%).
For the same period, over 1,200 women began a career in a construction trade. The most recent statistics from the Commission de la construction du Québec (CCQ) show us the remedial measures for access to the industry have been beneficial in increasing the number of women entering the industry, up from only 363 in 2015 (+241%).
Passionate About Electricity
Jenifer St-Hilaire first discovered electricity at a very young age. At only five years old, she was already imitating her father, a master electrician, and installing electrical sockets. Her parents bought an old house where everything needed to be renovated, and that house became her playground. Jenifer explored just about every aspect of renovating: demolition, floor installation, mortar coating. But it was the electrical circuits that sparked her interest the most.
That first spark of interest? When she was a teenager, she began accompanying her father on jobs, interested in everything and hoping to learn about a profession she was already passionate about. As for being too routine, this is not an issue in her daily life. “There is no such thing as a typical day because the interventions are so varied,” she explains.
Right after high school, Jenifer made her career choice: she would be an electrician. One of her female teachers tried to discourage her. Her mother was worried it would be dangerous. “For a girl who took dance classes for eight years and was always competing in beauty contests and going to castings, I can see why my choice might have been surprising,” she admits.
Even though she was the only girl in both electricity groups, Jenifer followed the classic path at the l’École Professionnelle des Métiers (EPM), in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
It was a revelation. “With my father, I was introduced to residential electricity. At school, I was able to go even further and explore the different facets of the trade, such as the industrial and commercial sectors, programming, home automation installation. I became so passionate about PCs that I volunteered to assist my teacher during Explo! evenings with high school students.” How does one explain this passion that is so often inherited? By simply highlighting that it is a great trade. “I was searching for an activity where I could work indoors and outdoors, and that is both manual and technical. Being an electrician requires logic and math skills. It offers good professional challenges and the opportunity to see a project progress from start to finish. And you make a good living. I could not envision myself spending my days in an office.”
A Passion for Competitions
During the last year of her DVS program, Jenifer threw herself wholeheartedly into the Skills Competition adventure, devoting evenings and weekends to the challenge and winning local and regional competitions. “I was eating, sleeping and breathing competitions!” she says. “Thanks to the Québec Skills Competition, I learned to trust myself. The experience helped me confirm that I was talented and had made the right choice.”
The time that her teacher devoted to her during the training process made certain classmates jealous; others had trouble digesting being ‘beaten by a girl.’ But Jenifer kept her eye on the prize: the Canadian finals in Waterloo, Ontario. Once there, the stress, disorganization, and language barrier with English hindered her performance, but Jenifer has good memories of it all. She says, “The call of the Québec delegation with our flags…The organization was so impressive. What a great experience! ”
Thanks to the Québec Skills Competition, I learned to trust myself. The experience helped me confirm that I was talented and had made the right choice
First Foray into the Job Market
Once she graduated in 2010, Jenifer preferred to find a job on her own rather than work with her father. She got the chance to explore different practical experiences in companies. “It is a physical job,” she says. “But when you’re working on a job site, while there are some tasks where I am at a disadvantage because I’m not as strong as a man, my size also allows me to work in tiny spaces, and my delicate hands are perfect for tasks that require being meticulous.
“In short, everyone works with what life has given them. I never let being a woman stop me.” What do clients and colleagues have to say? “Most of the time, I am well-received. Above all, clients want a competent electrician, whether they are male or female. With colleagues, you still have to put up with the same old sexist jokes. But I say you have to know how to dish it out too!” she replies with a smile.
With colleagues, you still have to put up with the same old sexist jokes. But I say you have to know how to dish it out too!
As for clichés, Jenifer dispels them daily with the quality of her work. Her tiny waist, long platinum blond hair and manicured nails made her first employer doubt her, she recalls with a smile. “When I left the company, he admitted to me that he had judged me negatively at first and thought he had made a mistake by hiring me, but that I was a good employee and he did not want to see me go.”
Hearing her speak, being a woman in this trade poses (almost) no problem, except for the hours that make reconciling work and family life difficult. For Jenifer, efforts should focus on promoting access to the profession by raising awareness of these trades among young girls. “There should be talks where women who have chosen male-dominated trades can speak about their experiences, and open houses with only girls so that they can ask their questions without fear of being judged.”
In 2012, Jenifer St-Hilaire was offered a teaching position at the same school where she trained, which she accepted at only 22 years old! “It’s an excellent school and I’m happy to see the situation for girls is getting better and better each year. There is much less bullying.”
For seven years now, Jenifer has been sharing her passion for the trade with future electricians, both male and female. Jenifer will soon be rejoining the team at the École Professionnelle des Métiers following her second maternity leave. She is looking forward to seeing her colleagues, who are currently organizing the very first all-female class..
This project is being developed in partnership with the Centre d’Orientation et de Formation pour Femmes en Recherche d’Emploi (COFFRE inc.), a non-profit organization dedicated to bettering socio-economic conditions for women. This organization promotes and supports the full participation of women in the labour market with a view on equality, equity and sustainability. This innovative initiative will no doubt garner interest in other vocational training centres across Québec.
What is her advice to women who would like to work in this trade? “You have to have character, and you can’t be overly sensitive or too hot-headed. Girls must overcome prejudices and trust themselves. Pride also helps, don’t underestimate it!”