Jamie McMillan: ‘Evangelist’ for the Skilled Trades: 2019
WHEN JAMIE MCMILLAN interacts with high school students, it’s hard to tell if she’s a student or the teacher. She acts young, has boundless energy and fits in with students—which is a bit ironic, considering she dropped out of high school her senior year. But after getting her GED, and becoming a journeyman with the Ironworkers (she’s currently a Boilermaker apprentice), she now works the tools six months of the year. She spends the rest of the year speaking to school-age kids through her business KickAss Careers—a name students picked.
McMillan, who is a member of Local 128 (Toronto, Ontario), travels around Canada with a load of supplies—gear for students to try on for pictures, a green screen, coloring books and more. Her goal: Tell as many students as she can about how incredible a career in the trades can be. Her charisma and ability to connect with students on their level is especially important now in Canada. The county needs around 600,000 additional skilled-trade workers to meet demand.
McMillan is a self-described “skilled-trades missionary” because, she says, the trades saved her life. Though she was raised in a loving and socially-conscious home, by the time McMillan turned 18, she was itching to strike out on her own.
“I thought I was a big girl and I could take care of myself,” she says. “I wanted to drop out of school, but my parents wouldn’t let me.”
So, she left her family and dropped out of high school in Timmins, Ontario, and went to work at a variety of service jobs. She had a lot of friends and spent time partying—something that wasn’t allowed at home. But eventually she felt unmoored with no real direction in life. After her parents urged her to find a job other than serving pancakes and coffee, she decided to pursue additional schooling.
“They’re the ones who encouraged me to get into a PSW program,” McMillan says. Personal support worker training teaches people how to care for the sick and elderly.
After she finished her five-month course, the Red Cross hired her straight out of the PSW program. Because of her name, the company thought she’d be a man. When she showed up, they were surprised. She worked that job for a few years, but it was hard on her when the people she cared for died. So, she moved to Toronto and started bartending—a lifestyle, she says, that was unsustainable.
“I was enjoying life a little too much,” McMillan says. “You work until two and three in the morning and then you start your day—going out until dawn, sleeping, then starting all over again. I got stuck in that vicious party circle. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was putting my priorities into popularity; living lavishly. I had a waterfront condo in Toronto for a while.”
Then, debilitating depression hit. She moved with a friend to Hamilton, an hour outside of Toronto, hoping the change would kick her out of her slump. But it wasn’t long before she couldn’t get out of bed to get to work. She’d sleep all day. Her roommate started picking up her slack but told her it couldn’t last.
What finally nudged her to change her life came from an unlikely person in an unlikely place.
While walking to the grocery one afternoon, a car pulled up to the curb. The woman in the car had just gotten a dispatch from her Ironworker local and asked for a pen to jot down the address where she needed to report to work.
After the woman handed the pen back, she looked at McMillan, stared for a minute then asked, “Is your name Jamie?”
Turns out, the woman was her old high school nemesis, now smiling up at her—500 miles from Timmons—looking fantastic and put-together. As an Ironworker, she made good money. McMillan's old foe had a good life.
“Eight years of searching. Eight years of not being happy with my life, and I had to find out about an apprenticeship from my high school nemesis,” McMillan says with a shake of her head. “Crazy.”
A few days later, she looked up the Ironworkers and trekked to their hall. She misjudged the time it would take to walk there (all day), but when she made it, she picked up an application, completed it and hoped for the best. A letter came a few months later confirming her apprenticeship, but when she showed up at the hall, the Ironworkers were surprised. They’d accepted her into the apprenticeship, because, like the Red Cross, they thought she was a man. The local still accepted her. And, finally, after years of aimless wandering, she found that the skilled trades were where she belonged.
McMillan loved working the trades. Enjoyed the physical work and thrived on jobsites. She had purpose and a path toward the future. After four years working in the field, Skills Ontario contacted her to see if she wanted to attend a mentorship dinner and speak to teens about working in the skilled trades. That one dinner turned into many, which turned into speaking gigs in schools.
After a few years on the speaking circuit, at the encouragement of then-IVP-Canada Joe Maloney, McMillan indentured into Edmonton, Alberta’s, Local 146 (she recently transferred to Local 128).
“Her energy is amazing,” Maloney says. “Her passion and dedication to assisting young people, and particularly women, toward the trades is impressive. She’s saying all the right things to a group of people who would have never considered the trades before.”
Yet even after years sharing her life story and details about a career in the trades with students, McMillan never truly thought about the impact she was making until 2013, when one high school senior entered her life.
“I went to a school one day and spoke to a group of kids, and a girl came to talk to me,” she says. “After, I didn’t think much of it.”
A couple months later, she was at a Skills Ontario event and a tech teacher stopped her. He told her she’d come to his school to talk about how “badass the trades were.” At the time, a senior named Hannah was disengaged in school and failing at most everything. But after hearing McMillan speak, the teen decided to commit to welding. The teacher said Hannah had just entered college for a welder-fitter program.
“I welled up with tears,” McMillan says. “Then Hannah came over and we ended up hugging. That was the first time I felt the impact of what I did.”
It’s the young men and women like Hannah who keep McMillan speaking to schools.
“It’s a labor of love,” McMillan says, noting that she makes significantly more money working in the field than in the classroom. Even so, she won’t quit, because she wonders what her life might have been like if someone had told her about the trades before she dropped out of high school. Maybe, she says, she wouldn’t have spent eight years searching for the right path.
And yet, maybe that searching gave her the passion for the trades she uses to “evangelize” today.
For more information about Jamie McMillan, the Workplace Equality campaign and the team at Kick-Ass Careers, visit kickasscareers.org.