Since 2009, March 31 has marked the International Transgender Day of Visibility, a day celebrating transgender and gender non-conforming people in our communities. Today, March 31, 2021, in honour of this special occasion, we celebrate the story and work of Megan Mathes, General Manager of Building Services leading Modern Niagara’s services team in Calgary and Edmonton. Megan announced to the Modern Niagara team that she is transgender earlier this month. A true embodiment of our Core Values, Megan shares her career background, her experience at Modern Niagara, and her vision for inclusion in the industry.
Q: How did you get started in the trades?
I was the kid who always needed to take things apart and figure out how they work. My father was a service technician for IBM, where he repaired typewriters, ATMs, and computers, and that is where I got my mechanical aptitude.
Through family and life circumstances, I left home in my mid-teens and dropped out of school. I needed to work to live, and I found that through a job at Burger King in Lethbridge, Alberta. I worked my way up the ranks and by the time I was 18, I was the evening manager who ran the store until 3:00 AM. When the equipment like the fryers, shake machine, or coffee maker would break, my penchant for repairing things would take over and I would try to repair it myself, instead of calling in the repair company. The same repair company quickly realized that this was both a risk and an opportunity and they asked the restaurant manager if they could offer me a job as an apprentice.
I started with a small three-person repair company in 1997 as their only apprentice working towards becoming a Commercial Appliance Service Technician. I didn’t meet the entrance requirements to get into any trades since I dropped out of high school so I went to the community college in the evenings to get a high school equivalency diploma.
In the first few months, out of all the equipment we worked on, I was so fascinated with refrigeration. I fell in love with refrigeration and my employer supported me starting a Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanic Apprenticeship.
Q: How long have you been at Modern?
I have been with Modern Niagara for just over 2 years. However, it has been 20 years in the making and has an interesting story.
Q: How did you come to join Modern?
My first intro to Modern Niagara was in 2001 when our family (my partner, Rebecca, and two children, Renton and Camden) went on a family vacation to Brantford, Ontario. We thought about relocating to Ontario and I asked for an interview at Modern Niagara in Toronto. I met with the Service Manager and was very interested in the organization, but we didn’t end up relocating at that time.
I paid attention to Modern Niagara once again when they arrived on the scene in Calgary to build 8th Avenue Place in 2008. Later, in 2014, Modern wanted to start a service business in Calgary and I believed I was top of my game, leading a team of 30 technicians who were HVAC/R mechanics, plumbers, and apprentices. I chatted with Modern Niagara about plans to join their team to start the Calgary service business for 2015. Although I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do in the next part of my career, in the end, I wanted to round out some experience and receive some formal management training before making a move like that.
Coincidentally, Kevin Spencer (VP, Services) and I were both members of the UA National HVAC Training committee. I kept in touch with him as well as Patrick Armstrong (Energy Solutions Manager, Services), who had moved to Calgary from Toronto to start the Service business at Modern Niagara. A few key pieces fell into place and Modern Niagara Alberta was suddenly at a size where I felt I could really contribute with my skillset and leadership. After some contemplation, I realized that I had been closely watching the company long enough and I felt that it was time to join this amazing organization and help build the Alberta business.
Q: What was your path to become a General Manager (Building Services)?
Moving from being a technician in the field to being a manager in the office does not come easily, even if you have some natural ability and skill. Regardless of your current position or career plan, we all need new skills to do the job of tomorrow because the world and technology change so fast.
I enrolled in the Certificate of Professional Management at the University of Calgary and, over the next five years, took over 300 hours of classroom instruction in evenings and weekends to build that acumen. In that time, I was fortunate to apply the learning directly to the business I worked in. Receiving my certificate in 2018 was equally as exciting as receiving my journeyperson certifications earlier in my career. With the additional business skills learned, I started to look at the things that come up in our business the same way I did as a skilled field technician on a service call.
For me, the journey has not been a race. I worked as a field service technician for 15 years, then became a Service Manager for the next eight years, and have been working as a General Manager since March 2020.
Q: What do you like about working with Modern?
The first thing that comes to mind is that the values of the organization align with my own and that is a personal requirement for me to work somewhere. Many organizations have their values on the website or on a poster in the boardroom, but at Modern we live it. Like water flows in a waterfall from the top to the bottom, our leaders support the organizational values the same way.
The second for me is that I have two things that drive me in life, and Modern has a lot of room for me to do these things.
- The first is “the pursuit of knowledge”: I am a lifelong learner and I need to have runway to keep learning new skills and abilities.
- The second is “I need to help others”: I am internally driven to serve and help others, and desire to leave everything better than when I found it.
Q: How has your experience at the company been so far?
My time working with Modern has been the most amazing part of my journey. I choose not to live life with any regrets and as much as it has been a 20-year journey to get to Modern, things happen for a reason and I can do my job today because of the skills, abilities, and experiences that I have gained along the way.
Q: What do you find most rewarding in your leadership role?
The most rewarding part of my role right now is coaching and inspiring the best in others and applying strategy to the things that we do.
As a young teenager, I knew that I wanted to help people in life and contemplated the idea of becoming a Doctor. I read the book “Becoming a Doctor, by Melvin Konner, MD.” The one thing that resonated most with me from that book was the teaching method in medicine referred to as “See One, Do One, Teach One.” This method embraces the apprenticeship model in its truest form where you watch someone who has mastered the skill you wish to learn, you practise it yourself with your mentor supporting and coaching you, and then you confirm your knowledge of the skill when you can successfully teach it to another individual.
Q: What are some changes you want to see in the industry concerning inclusion and acceptance?
I have recently come out publicly and professionally as an openly transgender woman and through my story, I can bring awareness and a space for other gender diverse individuals to be themselves and for the greater industry and public to understand that we are all unique individuals who want to be safe and be themselves.
As I reflect on my journey, I think of my younger self who wanted to talk to their family about their gender but didn’t believe they would be accepted. The adolescent who tried to come out to health professionals and ended up living in psychiatric care after taking numerous attempts at my life. The young person working at Burger King who saw and heard the way that others joked about the one visible “Tranny” in Lethbridge that would never get a job and never amount to anything because they were “weird” and “had a sickness.”
I am thankful for where the world has come on the topic of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, but we still have a way to go. We owe a lot to the younger generation who understand that gender, identity, and attraction are a spectrum as opposed to a binary. This generation is our future. They are our future coworkers, tradespeople, clients, and fellow human beings.
Mental health awareness and support have come leaps and bounds and there are numerous supports available for each and every one of us.
Often the smallest steps are the best ways to bring about and support change. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts of things that you can do to support ED&I:
- Support gender neutral trades speak. For example, labour vs manhours, tradesperson vs tradesman, journeyperson vs journeyman, foreperson vs foreman, and folks vs ladies and gentlemen.
- Consider stating your pronouns to show you’re an ally and to create a safe place.
- Never assume someone’s gender unless they identify their pronouns and gender to you.
According to Statistics Canada, an estimated 0.24% of Canadians aged 15 years or older identify as transgender. As members of our communities, it is crucial for companies like Modern Niagara to take the steps needed to allow transgender individuals to be their authentic selves in the workplace and elsewhere. It is imperative that organizations like ours celebrate our transgender team members for who they are, the work they do, and the positive impact that they have on our communities. Celebrating and making visible our transgender colleagues bring us one step closer to understanding, acceptance, and ultimately, inclusion.