“The Work Shift” series is written for Daily Hive by Gerald Narciso, a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, as he speaks with millennial and Gen Z workers who are navigating the post-pandemic job market in real-time.
Dyed blonde hair spills out of the back of Monique Song’s black welding helmet.
The 30-year-old is on the shop floor at her metal fabrication apprenticeship and analyzing a blueprint for a customized flat deck frame that will eventually sit on a truck bed. Metal sparks fly and loud drilling sounds persist as she cuts through the aluminum sheet.
Every day is a grind. But she prefers it that way.
“There’s definitely a lot of studies on how moving the body makes you happy,” says Song, who recently moved to Langley from Vancouver. “What I love about my work is that you can visibly see what you’ve accomplished in a day.
“The fulfillment is right in front of your eyes.”
Working in the trades is hardly the career path her traditional Asian parents envisioned for her. In Song’s adolescence through well into her adulthood, her family has heavily influenced, sometimes even dictated her education and career decisions.
“As a girl, they were worried about what I was doing with my life,” Song says. “At this point, either you’re supposed to have a career that you’re chasing after, or you have a partner that you’re building a family with. I had neither.”
At the strong urging of her father, Song applied and was accepted into the Master of Business Administrative (MBA) program at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in 2020. But it didn’t feel right, nor did it seem logical to Song. She sought a career that was seemingly recession-proof and a degree or certificate that would not leave her in significant student debt.
Most of all, Song wanted to stop pretending to be somebody that she was not.
“When you graduate from university, you go land a job and then you’re expected to kind of stay there and climb the ladder,” says Candy Ho, an assistant professor of Integrative Career & Capstone Learning at the University of Fraser Valley (UFV).
“We now know that not everybody wants to climb the ladder. There are many other factors that determine career happiness.”
Work-life balance, flexibility, company culture, job role, and of course, compensation, are key indicators for happiness, especially with the Gen Z and millennial generations. A highly publicized 2010 study, conducted by Nobel Prize award winner Angus Deaton, asserts that happiness peaks at $75,000 per year. Anything beyond that figure only compounded problems for the earner.
Song never felt fulfilled, accepted, or even stable, in the corporate world where she had stints as an executive assistant and a project manager. Excel spreadsheets and office culture were an existence that she despised.
“I was just there counting the minutes and waiting for the weekend,” she says. “And that’s sort of at the point where I just decided to make a shift.”
Vast and arid desert land sprinkled with sparse bushes makes up the desolate Australian Outback.
At the end of 2018 Song left her job as an executive assistant at a healthcare company in Vancouver to move to Australia under the temporary Working Holiday visa for Canadians between the ages of 18 and 35.
For more than a year, she explored and camped across the country’s endless deserts and spectacular coasts in rugged 4WD SUVs. She soul-searched, pursued love, and filmed her adventures on her popular Overland Lady YouTube channel.
On top of documenting the bright stars and navigating the rough terrain, she would tinker with the vehicle’s parts and offer tutorials in assembling camping equipment.
It was also Down Under where Song developed her affinity with the trades and how the country embraced blue-collar work.
“People there are proud to be a ‘tradie,’” she says. “They even put ‘tradie’ on their Tinder profile.”
However, manual labour professions carry a stigma in Song’s culture. Her family immigrated to Canada from China in 2009 — when she was 16 years old — and she was expected to study business in university and then thrive in the corporate world.
“Being a blue-collar worker in China is almost looked down on, it’s almost a sign of not being smart enough,” says Song, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) in 2017.
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The global pandemic forced Song to return to Canada in the spring of 2020. She was all set to return to reality and begin her grad school studies until learning the entire master’s program would be conducted virtually.
“It made me rethink whether or not I still want to take an MBA, because the whole point of taking an MBA is to be in a collaborative hands-on working environment,” says Song, also noting the five-figure tuition attached to grad school. “So, I just thought that it really wasn’t worth it just because my dad told me to do it.”
She also considered that corporate workers were susceptible during economic downturns.
“So, there’s that part of the essential or nonessential idea that comes to mind in terms of job security,” she says. “You need to make sure the work you’re doing is always going to be necessary no matter how bad the economy.”
In 2021, Song enrolled in BCIT’s Trades Discovery for Women program which sparked her interest in metal fabrication. She is currently an apprentice with Intercontinental Truck Body in Surrey and recently received her Level Two in February.
She has not looked back.
Money vs Happiness
Like in most career changes, there were tradeoffs for Song.
Tuition for the one-year, full-time MBA program at SFU costs $43,836 (plus roughly $5,000 in student fees and books). But the payoff is potentially lucrative. Entry-level MBA grads in British Columbia earn an average of $66,303 per year according to ZipRecruiter, while graduates in the 75th percentile earn $96,500, and top earners net $135,500.
In comparison, the 26-week BCIT trades discovery program tuition cost Song around $2,500. By the end of the trades discovery and metal fabrication programs, she got her investment back through grants sponsored by Concert Properties and the BC Centre for Women in the Trades.
An estimated 96 percent of apprentices from BCIT get employment. And regardless of what Song’s parents may think, working as a metal fabricator has provided a stable income.
According to Indeed, the average salary is an estimated $37 per hour (roughly $76,000 per year). That figure directly mirrors the one in that 2010 happiness study.
“What’s $120,000 a year if you can’t do your hobbies or are feeling burnt out?” asks Ho, who is also the vice-chair of CERIC, a Canadian nonprofit aimed at advancing career development for young people.
“It goes back to ‘how are you living in alignment with your core values?’ And I think that’s the bigger question.”
If living in her truck in the middle of the Australian Outback was any indication, Song enjoys the simplicities of life. She doesn’t care for the rat race and has no desire to live in an Olympic Village highrise. In fact, she has zero qualms about eventually moving to remote areas of BC where the earning opportunity for trade workers is higher.
But more important than a stable career, earning potential, and meaningful work, Song has found peace and acceptance. She is proud to be a ‘tradie’ and her parents have come around as well.
“Business school and a Master’s Degree is what my parents used to think was the only way to happiness in life,” she says. “But a fulfilled life takes many forms.”
Read part 1 of the series: How out-of-work millennials are navigating the new normal, part 2: The struggle is real. Even with a side hustle, and part 3: Laid off couple in tech considers abandoning Canadian city.