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“Education opens a window to a whole new world that you couldn’t see before. Any kind of education. After four years as an apprentice, you become a journeyman and that’s when you begin to see you’re just starting, because you can see further now. The whole experience of going outside your comfort zone to think and to experience new things…you come out the other side and realize what you couldn’t before.”
JudyLynn Archer of Edmonton has helped women and their families escape poverty. By training, housing and encouraging marginalized women to learn a trade, JudyLynn and the Women Building Futures program have also helped the construction industry find local, qualified and motivated tradespeople.
JudyLynn Archer was born on April 5, 1952, in Mission, British Columbia. She and her brother Gary grew up in a single parent household, often on welfare, often not knowing where they would sleep from one day to the next. JudyLynn would later say that her childhood experience was the gift of a lifetime, because it instilled in her an unshakable determination to be in the driver’s seat of her own life. Little did she know that determination would help other women take control of their lives, too.
From a very young age, she and her brother were encouraged to find work – any kind of work. Education, and in particular post-secondary education, was never discussed or considered. “It just wasn’t an option,” explains JudyLynn. Upon moving to Edmonton in the early 1970s, she noticed lots of tractor-trailers on the road and realized this could be a good paying, steady job, so that’s what she did and she stayed with it for a long time.
A newspaper ad for the new Grant MacEwan Community College changed all that. GMCC offered library technician training. Inspired by her high school librarian, JudyLynn decided to follow in her footsteps. Going to MacEwan was a game changer for JudyLynn. She found to her surprise that she had the capacity and hunger to learn, and found it all very exciting. With her new diploma in hand, JudyLynn landed a job with Alberta Career Development and Employment. She continued to learn and found an affinity for labour market information and the world of career development.
In 2002, JudyLynn met a small group of women – social workers employed by the City of Edmonton and others working in Edmonton’s non-profit sector – who were talking about Women Building Futures (WBF), a not-for-profit organization they had recently established to help women escape poverty through training in the trades. They were looking to hire someone to build and grow the organization.
At that time, WBF was focused on equality for women. JudyLynn felt that focus needed to shift to building workforce solutions for industry. She could see that in 15 years, the industry would face a labour shortage as tradesmen retired, presenting an opportunity for thousands of women and, specifically, underemployed women. She got the job and became President and CEO of WBF. Her vision and leadership took the organization from a great idea to a great success.
WBF first leased a 4,000-square-foot basement on Jasper Avenue. It was nothing but a concrete shell with one lightbulb in one corner. The social workers began referring women to the 17-week program, while supporters donated supplies and tools. JudyLynn was constantly applying for grants to sustain the program when she wasn’t busy establishing relationships with community agencies, industry associations, employers and government. JudyLynn and her team launched what would become a 10-year marketing campaign, the first of its kind in Canada, to raise awareness among women about career opportunities in the trades.
JudyLynn created a strategic tool to help women decide if the program and working in the trades is a good fit for them. If so, students upgrade basic math and science, develop a fitness and nutrition routine, and sample six trades through hands-on skills training. In the end, graduates are prepared to deal with the challenges of working in a predominantly male environment, as well as the physical and intellectual requirements of working in the trades.
JudyLynn embodied everything WBF needed to reach out successfully to the construction industry: experience, work ethic, integrity and directness to relate peer-to-peer. Under her leadership, WBF’s profile and track record grew, which led to growth in its credibility, funding and programs.
All of this success meant a need for more space. In 2006, WBF purchased a warehouse on 107 Avenue and, just two years later, the Women Building Futures Suncor Training Centre and Housing Facility officially opened its doors. Today, the facility remains one of a kind in Canada. The renovated 32,000-square-foot facility features a floor dedicated to skill training workshops (carpentry, welding, plumbing, sheet metal, electrical), a floor for classrooms and administration, and three floors (42 units) of housing. This facility significantly strengthened WBF’s capacity to offer full wrap-around services for women in its programs, while growing its capacity for training. WBF delivers its programs to Indigenous women in communities across the western provinces and all territories. Approximately 30% of the WBF team and student population are Indigenous.
JudyLynn’s vision for the new facility included affordable housing for women and their children. The reason was simple. “There’s no way a woman who is working three part-time jobs to feed her kids can afford to quit in order to go to school,” she explains. She also wanted participants to feel safe, so they could concentrate on learning. To this day, WBF operates on the understanding that a woman’s journey to economic prosperity begins with safe, affordable housing.
JudyLynn worked with Olds College and NAIT, so they could design workshops and skill development programs, as well as provide instructors on contract. In 2015, she joined NAIT’s Board of Governors.
Strategic relationships with industry began to pay off as companies contracted with WBF on a fee-for-service basis to attract and train women for their projects. Solid relationships with major employers like North West Refining, Suncor and Imperial Oil, among many others, led to good jobs for women on key construction projects and ongoing operations. These successes led to significant financial support for WBF.
As of 2020, WBF has trained over 2,300 women. Graduates experience an average employment rate of 90% (2019) and 2.5 times increase in income after completing a WBF program. Many students and graduates say WBF has increased their confidence, turning their lives “right side up.”
JudyLynn retired from WBF at the end of 2016, but her heart remains actively engaged in supporting WBF students. She established the JudyLynn Archer Endowment Fund that will contribute in perpetuity to the long-term sustainability of WBF. The fund, managed by the Edmonton Community Foundation, helps cover the cost of tuition and onsite housing for women enrolled in WBF programs. True to form, she kicked off the fund with her own donation, which was immediately matched by North West Refining and Canadian Natural Resources Limited. Today, JudyLynn continues to grow the fund and, in so doing, creates more opportunity for more Alberta women to get the training and support they need to take control of their destiny.
These days, JudyLynn is acting president of the South East Edmonton Seniors Association. As with many seniors’ organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed serious challenges to their ability to offer programs to members, so they’re focused on moving their programming online. “We’re coming up with different ways for our members to stay connected, engaged and part of the community. It’s challenging for all of us but we’re committed to figuring it out together,” she says.
JudyLynn has received many accolades for her work with WBF, including the Business Professional Women Canada Centennial Recognition Award (2016), YWCA Woman of Distinction Award (2013), Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Chairman’s Award of Excellence (2010), Women’s Executive Network Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada Award (2009), Global TV Woman of Vision Award (2006), and the 2006 Glenora Rotary Club Integrity Award (2006) to name a few. In 2006, NAIT celebrated JudyLynn’s significant contributions by awarding her an honorary degree in Construction Engineering Technology.
During JudyLynn’s time with WBF, the percentage of women working in construction skilled trades in Alberta doubled. But more important to JudyLynn, women had the support they needed to change their situation. “The wrap-around service provided by Women Building Futures is transformative; it offers women security, stability and a very different vision about what their future could be. And by changing their own future, they change the future for their children,” she says. “When they leave Women Building Futures, they know the only reason they will ever come back is to mentor new WBF students.” And in JudyLynn’s eyes, that’s everything.