Women in construction

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Katherine Van Leeuwen leads Division 15 Plumbing and Barrie Construction Association

GTA Construction Report special feature

Attending business school at Brock University, Katherine Van Leeuwen had no plans to join the family plumbing business, but now, as vice-president, she plays an integral role in the company and its growth.

“I don’t know if I even knew back then what my dad’s company was all about. I worked in museum development and touring, then moved to radio and television sales training. I was exhausted by all the travel and when I had a conversation with my dad about it all he suggested I consider the family business because he was planning his retirement,” she recalls.

Van Leeuwen took the advice, learned more about the company and had a conversation with her family, including her brother Ian, who was the key ‘field guy.’ Van Leeuven took over management of the office from her father, and her brother still fills the field expert role.

Bringing to the company her acquired experience in human resources, business management and customer service, Van Leeuwen oversees receivables, project management, estimating, human resources, legal aspects, ministry issues, apprenticeships and the company’s forward focus. “At some point companies that start as grassroots operations have to move on to a more corporate way of thinking,” she says.

Van Leeuwen notes that she sees more women coming into the industry, taking advantage of opportunities that are available and making them their own. “I don’t run into gender issues myself,” she says. “What I do deal with are technical issues where I have to defer to my experts in the field. I think that would be the case whether I was in high-tech or manufacturing or construction, though, because what I bring to the business is different from those who studied trades, for instance. I just have to be comfortable knowing what is not my specialty and asking for the help where I need it.”

Van Leeuwen explains that same ability to ask for help works in the field as well and that if women can be firefighters, they can certainly be plumbers. “There will always be an element of manual labor in construction but when it comes to heavy lifting, there are tools to help with the work. For safety reasons we’d never ask a man to lift beyond his means on his own and the same is true for a woman in the field.”

“You can never go wrong having a trade. That’s one thing that can never be shipped off shore,” she says. “With the shortage in trades women will find they can be well-paid, get benefits, good time off and the flexibility of hours they may need to balance work and family.  It’s hard work, don’t doubt that, but it’s work that will always be available.”

For those who aren’t interested in field work, Van Leeuwen says construction also offers huge potential on the office side. “The industry is becoming paperwork heavy with health and safety reporting, estimating and project management work. Whichever side of the desk you prefer, there is a future in construction,” she explains.

The immediate future for Van Leeuwen includes her installation in January as the next Barrie Construction Association (BCA) president.  She won’t be the first woman president, since the BCA has had several in the past. “The BCA has always welcomed women and representation on the board is equal. The role of the construction association is evolving and becoming more of a resource to communities,” she says.

Van Leeuven says the industry will be faced with uncertainty in the near future, with a new government expected soon and the controversy over the College of the Trades continuing. The BCA supports the industry coalition fighting against the program.

“We’re moving into turbulent times,” she says, “but that makes it exciting. I’ll be working to spread the word that the association is an active voice and continuing our stewardship with communities.”