In her blood: Q&A with West Fraser shift co-ordinator Jessica Williams
By Maria Church
Jessica Williams is a shift co-ordinator at West Fraser’s Williams Lake Plywood in Williams Lake, B.C. She has worked at the plywood plant for the past 10 years and in her current role as shift co-ordinator she operates as a relief supervisor and alternate safety resource. With encouragement from family in the forest industry, Jessica is embracing a career path in safety.
CFI: What lead you to start working at Williams Lake Plywood?
I started in 2008, basically right out of high school, as a weekend clean-up person. Originally I did not want to work here. My parents both worked here and they said you should work here because you’re going to make good money and go to school. So I started working on weekend clean up, and the fall of that year I started a bachelor of arts at TRU [Thompson Rivers University] in Williams Lake. I did that for two years and continued to work at the plywood plant.
After that I moved to Kamloops for a year to go to TRU, still driving back and forth on the weekends to continue working on weekend clean up. The next year when I was working as a summer production student at the plant, a bunch of courses I was supposed to take the next year were cancelled. I decided to continue working rather than go back to Kamloops for just one course. I’m really glad that I made that choice!
I’ve been on production ever since, primarily as a lay up line and press operator. I was also an elected safety representative and took safety courses through BCIT [British Columbia Institute of Technology] and decided I was going to pursue a career in safety. Just over a year ago I applied for shift co-ordinator, which is a stepping-stone to the safety department.
CFI: What is it about your job that you find appealing?
With safety specifically, I love the potential to help people and prevent them from getting injured. In the past in the forest industry there were a lot of injuries and fatalities. I don’t want that for the people I work with.
I also have a large family background in safety specifically. Both my parents have been on the safety committee at this plant for a long time. They were pushing me to do the education through BCIT, which was huge for me. I have an uncle who was a safety resource person for his mill and then went on to have a long career with WorkSafeBC and now has his own company where he does safety consulting.
As for the wood products industry in general, I really like that you can start out in an entry-level position making a good wage. You can support yourself and have a good life while working. That’s hard now with entry-level jobs. And there is huge room for growth within the industry. You might start out as an operator but then there are tons of opportunities if you are interested to progress through and do supervising and become a plant superintendent or a manager or go into safety or quality control.
West Fraser is a really good company for that because they like to promote within. They do a lot to prepare their employees to progress if they show interest. I’ve been very fortunate working here, all the management is very supportive of me pursuing my education and have given me opportunities to get experience.
CFI: How has mentorship played a role?
Definitely my parents and uncle, they were huge mentors. But even within the mill there are supervisors who have definitely had an impact on me as I’ve worked for them and now work with them. I respect a lot of my co-workers here and have a lot of really good friends.
My manager and superintendent have been very supportive of all the schooling I’ve been taking. They give me time to do my tests, and they’re giving me time in the safety office to gain experience. They are really positive influences and are a very supportive group.
CFI: Did you face any challenges or hurdles in your career path so far, as a woman or as a young person?
Honestly, as a young person, my experience has been very positive. A lot of our shift co-ordinators now are mid-30s and younger. We have several people in there who are still in their 20s.
We also have three female lead hands and our previous quality control person was a woman and she has now gone on and furthered her career with the company.
The biggest challenge I’ve experienced as a woman was myself. Some of that I think is because you hear stories about the glass ceiling and how it’s so much harder for women to progress.
So, in your own mind, it’s so easy to think, “I’m a young woman, I don’t think I’m old enough yet to apply for this. Will people respect me or listen to me?” I was in my own head.
A couple of years ago I didn’t take a chance to apply for my position because I told myself I wasn’t able to do it for whatever reason. I’ve grown since that time and started to say: I’m a person first and a woman second. If I’m qualified for this position and I’m going to put my name out there and if I get it, I get it, and if I don’t, I don’t. Once I got to the point that I stopped thinking about perceptions and what people think, it was very easy for me to step forward. I’ve had very positive experiences since I did that.
CFI: What advice do you have for women interested in a career in the forest industry?
I tell people time and time again. Just apply. Just get in there.
I was 18 years old and thinking, “well, I don’t want to work in the mill I want to be a psychologist!” Then I started working in the mill and I’ve loved every aspect of my job here since. I’ve met a lot of people and made lasting friendships.
From being a machine operator and experiencing the safety committee, I’ve since found a career that I didn’t even consider before and now I’m very passionate about.
Sometimes you don’t even understand the opportunities that are out there that can come from taking a chance and getting a job in wood products. If you, as a woman or anyone really, if you have an interest in checking out different things, you might be pleasantly surprised.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read more Q&As from CFI’s project on women in the forest industry here.