Tales of the Trades shares just some of the millions of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate and maintain the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.
Meet Jelissa De Torres. Jelissa, aka @jelly.thecarpenter, is a carpentry apprentice in British Columbia, Canada. She is a regional representative for the British Columbia Centre for Women in the Trades and is on the Board of Directors for the non-profit Build a Dream. On the weekends, Jelissa flexes her creative side by running a small business building products for local businesses and event planners/decorators. Her journey in carpentry started when she signed up for a Women in Trades: Intro to Carpentry course she found online. Although Jelissa was initially intimidated and hesitant about using power tools for the first time, she immediately fell in love and knew that this was the direction she needed to take. Jelissa is an advocate for mental health awareness and underrepresented groups entering the trades. She has big aspirations for the future and hopes to make the trades a safer and more inclusive, diverse, and equitable place.
What led you to pursue a career in the trades, and specifically your chosen industry?
I’ve always wanted to be a carpenter, and just over two years ago, I was looking up YouTube videos on how to use power tools. I quickly realized that I needed to learn from somebody who knows what they’re doing, because I couldn’t just teach myself. One day, I was perusing Craigslist and a program was being advertised for women in the trades called Intro to Carpentry. I said, “This is perfect! This is exactly what I’m looking for.” It took me a few days to sign up, because it’s incredibly intimidating. All I could think about was that the people in my class are going to be really smart and will already be familiar and comfortable with tools, so I avoided it. When I finally did sign up for the course, I ended up falling in love. My instructor was so patient and really eager to get us into the trades. I finished the program, and I found a job through the union.
What has your journey been like since you started?
In order for me to get my credentials, I needed hours. When I was first looking for a job, it was months and months of me looking and I never got a call back. I was told to change my name to something maybe more androgynous, which is kind of a bummer. It sucks when no one wants to hire you because they already think you’re going to be weak or even a distraction to the other people on-site. At the same time, it helped me wade through the people I don’t want to work with anyway. I ended up finding a job, and I love my boss. He’s wonderful, and my team is so encouraging. I feel safe, but I can see it being a huge struggle for people.
There were a few hurdles and moments where I wanted to give up. During the program when there was one week left of classes, I was ready to not show up. I was having a really hard time, because I was surrounded by people who finished the project a lot sooner than I did. It was really intimidating, and I almost didn’t come back. I wrote a post on a forum about how I was feeling, and a bunch of women commented to say, “No, you got this!” That’s what I love about this community. It’s so important to have representation, because then I know that I could do it too. To have that visibility and the community, like [fellow Rocker] Kendra the Electrician… She and all these other women on Instagram are always cheering me on. I love it because I get that support and can give that support back. One of the biggest factors for me staying is because of the community and things like interviews with women and underrepresented groups.
There are not a lot of women I see who are Asian when I’m on site, or even on social media. I wasn’t a very big social media person before the trades, but I post because I’m Asian and I’m in carpentry. Maybe some other girl will see that and think, “I can do it, too.”
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
One of the biggest things that I completely did not expect is the confidence and trust that I gained in myself. It’s changed significantly. I was really depressed and had a lot of anxiety before entering the trades. I was doubting myself all the time, and I still doubt myself sometimes, but not to the point that I did before. Being in the trades allowed me to care less about what other people think. I’ve taken a lot more risks in a good way. I’m working, I’m running a business on the side, and I’m going to school as well. That’s something that I probably wouldn’t have done without the confidence that I have now, as well as having the community cheering me on. I’m proud of being in the trades and the person that I am today.
What are the most challenging parts of your work?
The mental challenges and just fighting against myself. I still struggle with it, but I’m better at coping and reassuring myself. Another struggle is being a woman in the trades, because oftentimes, you have to work harder or you’re not gonna go anywhere. I just remember coming onto a job site as an apprentice and feeling like I was not learning anything for weeks. The whole point of being an apprentice is to learn something. It was really frustrating to see a guy with less experience than me being put on the tools and touching wood. Those moments made me think, “What’s wrong with me?” I took it personally, but there are unconscious biases that people don’t intentionally have but are there. These conversations that you and I are having are important to change those unconscious biases.
I did have to speak up and be like, “Hey, like, I’m not learning anything. I can’t do this.” Eventually, I did get put on the tools, but why do I have to even say that when other people are just immediately getting put on there? It’s tough because people assume you’re not strong enough, which is silly. We’re strong, but we just use different parts of our body to be strong. We find different ways to do it. If anything, we find better ways and safer ways to do things, because we have to really think about it. Adapting to the environment and having to deal with other people being a little bit biased towards you, and even not being able to get the opportunities that are available to your male counterparts. I feel like women have to prove themselves more.
What does it take to be successful at what you do?
Resilience and perseverance come to mind immediately. They’re skills that have to be practiced. Despite the challenges and people saying that you can’t do it, you just do it anyway. Because what is the worst that could happen, that you fail? That doesn’t say anything about you, because everybody fails. I try to remind myself to be okay with failure. Dust yourself off, get back up again, like, because definitely going to fail. I already anticipate I’m probably going to fail today somehow, but it doesn’t matter. With challenges, you learn something from it and you try again, or you can stay stagnant and never go forward.
What have you learned about yourself from being in the trades?
The trades have definitely taught me that I am capable. I am such a different person than I was over two years ago. I’m confident, I’m assertive, and I’m just generally happier. Part of the reason why I entered the trades is because I knew it was going to be really challenging. It’s kind of scary, but I love doing scary things. It’s almost like a superpower. It makes life so exciting to have people who say no to you, because that means I’m going to try extra hard.
What are your thoughts on the state of the trades right now industry-wise?
In high school, there are two different directions: you can go the academic route, or you can take the hands-on trades courses, which are not really encouraged to people who are maybe more academically-inclined. It’s unfortunate, because you can do really well academically and also really excel in the trades. I did really well in high school and went to university, but I realized it just wasn’t for me. I wish I took more carpentry or metal works and automotive courses.
I see that there’s a big problem with retention of women in the trades. I think the main reasons are because the trades have issues with sexism, racism, and bigotry. Now that there is a labor shortage, you notice. Women may get into the trades, but staying is an issue. It’s sad, because there are some really capable, amazing women that I’ve met on-site that are not in the trades anymore. I wish there was more support for them. Bullying in general is an issue that both men and women deal with, which needs to be addressed more seriously.
Any advice for those thinking about taking up an industrial trade?
I’ve put together this small package of information for people, because I do get a lot of inquiries from women saying, “Hey, I saw your posts, and I really want to get in the trades.” That makes me so happy, and makes me tear up a little bit. I give them some resources with things like the different unions they can contact. That’s one of the easiest ways to get into the trades, and unions really support you and help get you jobs and training.
I know that’s not possible for everybody, but the biggest point I can make is to join a community. Various communities can give you access to scholarships and different employers, and just give you support so you don’t feel so isolated. Go on social media and find your local trades groups, like women in trades, because every city has them. There are organizations like Rock the Trades that are so ready to support somebody who wants to get in the trades. For me in Canada, we have the BC Centre for Women in Trades. These organizations want to help you!
What are you looking forward to in the future work-wise?
I’m on the Board of Directors of Build a Dream, which is really exciting because it’s a great way to have my say in the direction that things are going in the trades. I also want to get my Red Seal, which is our accreditation here in Canada. I just want to be a really well-rounded carpenter. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed.
One of my long term goals is to start a summer camp for girls in my area. I did summer camps growing up, and I was also a summer camp leader, so I have those skills and the knowledge to do it. How amazing would it be to have a summer camp where we can teach girls trade skills and expose them to issues like the labor shortage? We would also show how to develop assertiveness and confidence, and how to build community so we can support each other. We need to stick together. Things like how to be assertive, how to ask for raises, and other important skills I feel like I didn’t learn until I got into the trades. I made a vision board for it, and I’ve been lucky enough to make the connections that I might just make it happen. Everything that I do right now is working towards that.
Last but not least: what’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
I love SkillShare, which is a website that offers different classes on different things. I’ll take a class on painting or drawing or calligraphy because I just love learning! It’s a way for me to relax - learning something that I don’t necessarily need to know. I do love just working in my shop, even if it’s not anything to do with work.
Our thanks to Jelissa for making time to share her story and industry insights with us.
You can follow and support Jelissa on the following platforms: