(This story was written with contributions from Sally Lee.)
As a 13-year-old, Rachel Schatz was a typical carefree teen. She enjoyed school, loved to hang out with her friends, and she dreamed of becoming a teacher one day. The world was full of possibilities. But one summer day in August, her father was involved in a life-changing accident that made thinking about anything beyond her family’s immediate needs a luxury.
Putting a childhood dream on hold
For Rachel, the challenges of having a hospitalized and later disabled parent were so overwhelming that the dream of becoming a teacher seemed distant. Instead, she remembers spending that entire summer visiting her dad in the Intensive Care Unit before starting high school.
She recalls struggling to accept her father’s new reality and engaging in behaviours that resulted in hurting her grades and, ultimately, her chances of pursuing teaching as a career.
“Things went sideways,” says Rachel. “I stopped caring about my marks in school and was making bad decisions. Everything in life was different. The accident and aftermath took a major toll on our family.”
Becoming a woman in trades
With her childhood dream of becoming a teacher placed on the back burner, post-secondary education wasn’t a priority. The rigours of higher education coupled with unhealthy habits ended up taking a toll on 24-year-old Rachel. She remembers waitressing at a local restaurant after dropping out of college and feeling lost.
One day, as Rachel was taking orders, a regular customer noticed her strong work ethic and offered her a job with a plumbing company.
She had assumed the position was for a receptionist role because she says it seemed unthinkable for a girl to become a plumber at the time. Rachel ended up quitting the restaurant scene, taking the job where she says that she started out “sweeping up after the guys, running errands, and assisting the journeymen.” It wasn’t long before she began measuring, cutting, and learning aspects of the trade, working her way up to plumbing alongside the crew.
“Trades found me,” she says.
Sharing her passion by teaching trades
As Rachel rose the ranks in the trades sector, she returned to post-secondary education. This time, choosing to study trades—the sector that found her that day at the restaurant—at BCIT. As she completed her BCIT training, she was presented with another opportunity that would bring her full circle.
Rachel recalls receiving a call from her apprentice Jackie Smith, also a BCIT alum who had just finished the Trades Discovery for Women Program (TDWP), about an exciting opportunity to teach in the TDWP. Jackie connected Rachel with Trades Access Department Head Tamara Pongracz, who was looking for a replacement to teach Piping. She was hired to teach nine weeks per year and soon after became a full-time instructor in the Piping department.
She says that her first teaching experience felt like a chance of a lifetime and a way to merge her childhood dream of becoming a teacher with her newfound passion for trades. Now 18 years later, Rachel laughs thinking about the moment that propelled her into trades: “It was so unlikely that I would end up doing what I’d always wanted, but in the end, I am elated to be fulfilling my dream.”
Today, Rachel teaches Piping Foundations, Plumbing, and Gasfitting. She is thrilled to share her growing love of teaching the new generation of leaders and ‘tradies’, including young women.
“I’m here [as an instructor] for the students,” Rachel says. “They motivate me to do my very best and I try to ensure that they have the knowledge and tools to feel confident in the real world.”
Resilience leads to success
As BCIT Faculty, Rachel just celebrated four years at the Institute and is gearing up to prepare a new group of level 4 plumbing students to write their Red Seal exam.
A teacher who embraces lifelong learning, Rachel is always looking for ways to grow. She says she is planning to advance her teaching skills and knowledge by taking on higher education in the near future. She encourages young women wanting to enter the trades to strive for what they want and to not let life’s challenges deter them.
“As women, we face a lot of imposter syndrome. I remember feeling incredibly nervous about starting my teaching job and preparing for lessons in advance, but ultimately you learn by doing things and making mistakes. Try to be patient with yourself and see mistakes as learning opportunities. This will help you grow and become confident and resilient in the long run.”
Learn more about BCIT Trades, including the Trades Discovery and Plumbing programs.
Read more inspiring alumni stories about women making their mark in the trades sector:
- From student to advocate: BCIT Carpentry alum Barbara James is a champion for Indigenous women in trades
- Life at BCIT: How a co-op led to a career as a heavy-duty mechanic
- Juggling it all: 3 BCIT alumni moms share advice on career success and parenthood
- From business to metal fabrication: Former MBA student follows her passion for trades