In 2001, after working in a lumber store for more than a decade, Andrea Coulson was struggling to build the life she wanted for her young family. 

“The hours were crazy; it was always nights and weekends for minimal pay,” says Coulson, a mother of three who had worked her way up to Department Manager but still found it difficult to cover the cost of daycare. 

The Oshawa mom of three was ready to make a change and, following a colleagues suggestion, decided to explore opportunities in the skilled trades — a pivotal move that she now credits her successful career as a Nuclear Construction Project Coordinator and Estimator to. 

Building a new life 

It all started with an  aptitude test, assessing Coulson’s skills in basic math and her understanding of mechanical concepts. Coulson’s impressive performance earned her an interview with UA Local 401 in Clarington, ON, which led to an apprenticeship in the fields of plumbing and pipefitting, fully organized by the union. 

“The great thing about the trades is that when you get in with your union, they put you through school and help equip you with the training and the ability to go out and write your qualification exam to get your license — all while working” she says. 

“They grow up quickly so to be able to have that time to be around the boys was amazing.” 

Within a year, Coulson was out of the lumber store and at her first job site – an asphalt processing plant – gaining valuable experience that laid the foundation for a hands-on career that she continues to enjoy.  

“I work with amazing people and it’s always interesting,” she says, having now worked in her field for nearly 15 years, 8 of them spent applying her trade in Ontario’s nuclear power generation industry. “With all the perks that come along with the career and to enjoy what you do as well — is just amazing.”

Family ties 

Going from retail to working in the building trades, Coulson says she gained both financial stability and more time for her boys and her husband, Al. 

“In retail you’re tied to nights and weekends so when everyone’s home — you’re at work,” she says. Now with a regular work schedule, she is able to spend more time with her sons. She reflects fondly on the month she once took between shifts to enjoy some R&R with the boys – now 16, 17, and 18 years old. “They grow up quickly so to be able to have that time to be around the boys was amazing.” 

Even when at work, Coulson’s family is never far from her mind. 

“Every job site I’ve been on, in some obscure place in the building, I’ve dedicated the building to my sons,” says Coulson. “I draw a big heart with a marker and I write ‘To Dylan, Jake, and Brett — Love Mom’.”

Coulson estimates that around 15 buildings, ranging from a government building to a school to a processing plant, are signed with the same message – never forgetting how much her career has given her family. “We just have a really good life because of it,” she says. 

Spreading the word 

Soon after becoming a journeyman plumber and pipefitter, Coulson began attending career day at her sons’ school – teaching students what working in the skilled trades is all about. 

“I felt a responsibility to show the next generation that this is an option that could grant them the financial security and access to opportunity that they want so they understood the benefits as a career,” she says. 

Her message resonated with many students, including her middle son, Jake, who is now preparing to take his mechanical aptitude test to become a plumber and pipefitter, just like his Mom. 

Coulson says it’s reassuring to know that her son’s chosen career path will lead to the same lifestyle that she’s enjoyed.  

As a child, Coulson once hoped to become a veterinarian, but now she no longer aspires to be in any field other than her own.    

“I have my dream job,” she says. “I really wouldn’t change it for anything.”