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Jess Byrnes shifts gears from career in healthcare to highways

'We need to spread the word that this is an option for people. Until you hear about it, you just don’t know its there and people fall back on the more traditional roles'

“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.        


Like many young women getting ready to enter the workforce, Jess Byrnes was guided toward a career in health care after high school.  

“That’s what a lot of women are told to pursue and I followed that same path initially. I was a Registered Practical Nurse (RPN) working out of the hospital in Sudbury. I worked in that field for about five years, but I was in a temporary position and there were government cutbacks so I lost my job.” 

Byrnes was born in Sudbury and is of Abenaki descent and is currently reestablishing ties with the Odanak First Nation. She says she decided to take her career in a different direction after the cutbacks. 

“I was working two part-time jobs, and I had school loans that needed to be paid back and I really felt like my bank account needed a quick turnaround and at the time, going to trucking school was a six-week course,” she says. 

“I took the course and was on the road for the next seven years working for Manitoulin Transport. It was a very drastic change, to go from an environment like the health care sector where it was very rigid, and everything had a strict policy to being in a job where there was a lot of freedom in the work itself and a lot more alone time and it was a job I really enjoyed.” 

Byrnes says one of her favourite runs was the 1,000-kilometre trek from Sudbury to Thunder Bay.  

“For about eight months straight I made that trip. I was driving what’s called a ‘Super Truck’ which is a dump truck body with a 53-foot trailer behind it and twice a week I would head up to Thunder Bay. I would leave Sudbury at 5 a.m. and it would take me exactly 13 hours to get there, which was the maximum you were allowed to drive in a single day. It was the best. I’d take two days' worth of food with me, and I’d just start driving,” she says, adding it also became one of the reasons why she eventually wanted to get off the roads. 

“As soon as winter would hit, that highway between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay that follows Lake Superior becomes perilous. You never know what kind of weather you’re going to get and you’re not sure if the highway will close and there were some scary moments and I just thought, it’s time to move on to something else.” 

Byrnes says between the danger that comes with being on the road that often, combined with a desire to be home more with her wife Sophie, Byrnes began an apprenticeship as a transport mechanic in North Bay. 

“Sophie's dad, my father-in-law, co-owns Lewis Motors in North Bay. He said if this was something I wanted to do, then he was going to encourage me in this pursuit. He said, ‘I'm behind you and this decision, and if you like it, great. If not, well, you tried,”’ she says.  

“I just felt like I had the support and the right place to attempt this, but I was a little hesitant because I know everything is super heavy. But as with anything, practice and patience and perseverance paid off and I’m now the only female transport mechanic in North Bay.” 

Byrnes says she knows there are other women in this trade. 

“I’m part of the Navistar International Training Group and they have a Facebook page dedicated to supporting women in this industry. From what I can tell though, all the other women are in the USA.” 

She adds even though it is a male-dominated industry she encourages more women to get involved because, with the advancements in tools and technology, this industry isn’t catered to brawn over brains anymore.  

“A lot of it is using your brain and not so much brute force. I think it is daunting for women to think about, but what they don’t realize is there are so many tools that make the job and your life easier. When it comes to lifting or working with bigger vehicles, we have newer technology that takes away a lot of the physical components of the job.” 

Byrne says on any given day she could be working on several different issues related to maintaining and repairing transports. 

“They come in with engine issues and a lot of that work is dealing with computers, but we also lease a lot of vehicles through the dealership, so there’s lots of maintenance, oil changes, taking wheels off, we do everything with trucks and trailers. We sell a lot of trucks so I’ve been designated as the Pre-Delivery Inspector, which means when we get a new vehicle in, I would have the final look over it before it goes to our customers,” she says.  

“Being right off the highway means we have a steady stream of customers who are looking for service on top of the folks who are purchasing vehicles.” 

Byrnes says she would love to see more women in this industry and skilled trades in general.  

“We need to spread the word that this is an option for people. Until you hear about it, you just don’t know it's there and people fall back on the more traditional roles, like I did by first going into health care, It also means you can change what you are doing now. Those five years in healthcare were not wasted knowledge. I take a lot of what I learned from that time and still put it to use now, for example, I’m part of the health and safety team at Lewis Motors,” she says. 

Byrnes says it really comes down to having representation and having more role models in the industry for people to talk to.  

“Having that community around you makes a huge difference. My father-in-law has been incredibly encouraging of people from different ethnicities, backgrounds, and lifestyles to come to work with him. Having business owners who are taking that progressive approach sparks that change. I feel like I would’ve had a way more positive outlook on this if I knew someone who identified as 2SLGBTQ working in this industry or if I had a female mentor to relate to. So now, I’m taking those experiences and passing them on to other women, whether it's online or in the classroom as I’m currently enrolled in the truck and coach program (310T) at Canadore College and doing what I can to be supportive as they begin their own journey in the trades.” 

If you have a story idea for “Jobs of the Future” send Matt and email at [email protected] 

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Matt Sookram

About the Author: Matt Sookram

Matthew Sookram is a Canadore College graduate. He has lived and worked in North Bay since 2009 covering different beats; everything from City Council to North Bay Battalion.
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