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People - Marla Robinson

Marla Robinson


Spotlight on Marla Robinson, Professor, Industrial and Motive Power

Marla Robinson stumbled upon her life's calling while teaching a summer course at Mohawk. 

She didn’t travel a straight path to her dream job.

She’s made it her mission to make it an easier journey for others.

Robinson, a professor of Industrial and Motive Power at Mohawk College, is a long-time and passionate advocate for the skilled trades as a smart choice for women, at-risk youth and anyone with a desire for a challenging and rewarding career.

“Many people don’t consider the trades or they think they’re dirty or inferior to other professions. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Technical, hands-on work interested Robinson from an early age.

Robinson was in Grade 6 when she and her mother took on the Hamilton public school board over the requirement that she take home economics while boys took industrial arts. Robinson says her mom taught her about sewing and cooking. What the young girl wanted to learn was how to use tools.

Robinson won that battle and shop and home economics became co-ed offerings by the time she was in Grade 7.

After high school, Robinson studied at the University of Toronto. She worked a series of jobs she didn’t like before heading to Mohawk to study fluid power automation under a retraining program.

“I stumbled upon my life’s calling. It’s such a rush. I love it so much. I realized what I was meant to do."
Marla Robinson, Professor, Industrial and Motive Power

She had 13 years of experience working in hydraulics and pneumatics in industrial automation settings when Mohawk called her employer in 1996 to see if anyone there wanted to teach a seven-week summer course in pneumatics.

Robinson volunteered.

She had already discovered she loved to teach while creating science projects for her son’s school and had contemplated going to teachers’ college.

Then at Mohawk she found her ideal job.

“I stumbled upon my life’s calling. It’s such a rush. I love it so much. I realized what I was meant to do,” said Robinson, who taught part-time before being hired full time in 1999.

“I realized it when I literally saw a light bulb go off over a young man’s head when I was explaining pneumatics. I had explained it five different ways and then all of a sudden there was this aura around him and I knew he got it.”

Robinson, who served a stint as the associate dean for the Stoney Creek campus, was the recipient of a President’s Award in September 2015. That award recognized her work in opening the prospect of a college education to bright but disadvantaged students.

Mohawk developed a Mechanical Techniques program about four years ago to introduce at-risk youth and mature students to opportunities in the trades.

“We get students in working with their hands. They are learners who may have slipped through the cracks.”

The program offers year-long courses in plumbing, framing, millwright, machining, welding, electrical and woodworking. Completion of the Mechanical Techniques program can lead to entry-level jobs in advanced manufacturing or start the path to an apprenticeship.

Robinson also developed and delivered a dual-credit foundations course for struggling high-school students that applies math concepts to a student’s trade of interest.

“Students who’ve disengaged from high school start to feel confident when they can apply math contextually. They become competent, confident and capable in math.”

In addition, Robinson works in a partnership with the Industry Education Council called ELATE (Entry Level Advantage to Employment), which brings at-risk students to Mohawk for a 28-week introduction to a variety of trades. Two groups have graduated and all costs for the students are covered.

The goal is to provide entry-level vocational and employability skills.

“It has transformed lives. It’s unbelievable for me to be associated with programs like that,” said Robinson.

“At this point in my career, it’s nice to be able to help people who may have fallen through the cracks somehow.”

Robinson has faced plenty of career obstacles of her own since graduating first in her class of 40 men and two women.

She was the last to get hired.

A promising interview for a technician job at a large aerospace company in Oakville ended when they said there was no washroom for her.

“That was the 1980s. There were a lot of battles but if you showed your knowledge and skills, 99.9 per cent of the barriers disappeared.”

She tells young women the trades will give them a well-paying job that requires critical thinking and problem solving, offers career advancement opportunities, mobility and the ability to always provide for themselves.

“I speak to a lot of high school girls and I tell them to take the highest level maths they can, never give up and never be afraid to be who you are.”

But overall, only 6.6 per cent of those in skilled trades in Canada are women. The proportion of female apprentices in carpentry, plumbing, and heavy equipment is 2 per cent or less.

Robinson, who holds a bachelors of education in adult education and is finishing a masters degree in educational leadership, describes her career as a tapestry. The latest addition is a secondment to ArcelorMittal Dofasco’s learning and development department where she is completing professional development and sharing her experience with L & D team.

Robinson has been behind the design and implementation of training programs for operational staff, engineers and technologists reinforcing the company’s commitment to World Class Continuous Improvement.

“Any time there is an equipment upgrade or a new line, Mohawk has designed programs to help employees bridge to the new technology for select technology and equipment upgrades.

ArcelorMittal Dofasco recognized a looming labour shortage almost 20 years ago and determined it would be crucial to have an effective and formal means to transfer knowledge and train new staff. The company called on Mohawk for help.

Mohawk supplies many industrial electrician and industrial millwright apprentices to the Hamilton steel company, as part of the Co-op Diploma Apprenticeship Program in which students graduate with both a college diploma and apprenticeship certificate.

The programs have been so successful in creating a pipeline of apprentices that Robinson was part of a team that helped colleges in Indiana and Illinois to set up a similar curriculum for a project called the Steelworker for the Future on behalf of ArcelorMittal USA

The strong partnership with ArcelorMittal Dofasco gives Mohawk an edge in making its students future ready for advanced manufacturing, says Robinson.

“We’ve been true partners. It lets us to see directly into an operation and see first hand what employers are looking for from our students.”

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Spotlight on is written by Freelance writer and editor Meredith MacLeod.

Follow Meredith on Twitter @meredithmacleod

About Mohawk

Mohawk College educates and serves more than 29,500 full-time, part-time, apprenticeship and international students at three main campuses in Hamilton, Ontario and learning hubs across Hamilton through City School by Mohawk, and at the College’s Centre for Aviation Technology at the Hamilton International Airport. Mohawk is among the top five colleges for applied research in Canada. It has been named one of Canada’s greenest employers seven years in a row, holds a GOLD STARS rating from AASHE for sustainability achievements and is home to the country’s largest and first institutional building to receive dual certification for Zero Carbon Building Framework design and performance for The Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation. More than 135,000 people have graduated from Mohawk since it was founded.