Jennifer Azak knew she had to make some changes in her life. It was 1996 and the single mother's son, Drae, was about to turn three. They were living off income assistance, which was enough for Azak to get by but not enough to provide the role model she wanted for her son.
She had previously taken a two-year technology course and had worked in computer programming, but the office atmosphere didn't suit her. As she pondered her next step, a close friend called to tell her about the Trades Discovery program for women at the B.C. Institute of Technology. She jumped at it.
"It was lots of work — I had to fit my homework in between getting my son ready in the morning and busing to BCIT. It was a challenge just getting to school every day."
But it was a challenge she relished. Azak successfully juggled her home life and schoolwork, receiving the second-highest mark for the 10-month entry-level training program, which has its students do a crash course in 22 trades before choosing a core program.
"I chose electrical because I'm good at math, and problem-solving was a part of it. Also, it was hands-on and seemed like a cleaner trade than the others," she said of her choice. "I just leaned toward it and enjoyed it."
Azak would go on to receive a most-promising-student award, a BCIT bursary and a $1,000 B.C. Hydro scholarship, among other awards. Within four years she was a certified Red Seal electrician and on the waiting list at the local union hall for work before BladeRunners gave her application the push it needed to get her work. But jobs were sometimes few and far between -- sometimes work was steady, and other times almost non-existent.
"I got a lot of help from my extended family, especially when I had to go out of town to Fort McMurray for four months because there was no work here," she said, adding it was difficult to be away from her young child. "I think it was better him seeing me struggling for work than sitting on the couch."
But there were plenty of times when she wondered whether she had made the right choice.
"I didn't know anybody," she said, recalling her very first day on a work site. "My hands were shaking, I was sweating and I felt like leaving. Nobody said anything, but you could tell these guys has worked together for a while and you're new on the job site and a woman."
Despite being the odd man out, so to speak, Azak was never given flak by any of her co-workers. If anything, she finds sometimes her male cohorts can be too accommodating.
"Most guys assume you can't do things. They try to do the gentleman thing and it gets a little annoying."
But that wasn't the case at Washington Marine Group, where she ran cable for electrical panels, security systems and lighting on vessels such as oil barges and the Island Sky ferry. Unfortunately, Azak -- whose proud son is now 17 -- is back at the union hall after being recently among the company's senior-staff layoffs.
"It's been good to me over the years," she said of her career, adding she is caring for her ailing father while she waits out the economic rough patch. "I'm just hoping for anything I can get right now. This year isn't looking good at all."