Rokhaya 'Rok' Gueye builds an exciting second career in the skilled trades more than 20 years after graduating from GBC

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If your professional path isn’t lining up as you’d hoped, don’t give up. Just ask George Brown College (GBC) alumna Rokhaya (Rok) Gueye, who launched her dream career as a carpenter more than two decades after graduating from the Construction Engineering Technician program

After gaining experience working on major projects across the Greater Toronto Area and challenging herself in new ways, she mentors young people and tells everyone she can about the benefits of a career in the skilled trades. 

"When you're doing something that you love, it no longer becomes a job," she said, "it's something you're passionate about, so you master it." 

Gueye graduated from GBC in 1999 and landed a great job soon after — a union gig with good pay — but she couldn't take it. She had to be on the job site before daycare opened, and as a single mom with young kids, she couldn't make the schedule work. 

That's when a career in telecommunications called. Gueye worked for a major Canadian company for over 17 years, moving up the ladder and across nine departments. In 2020, she was laid off, and she saw an opportunity.  

'I thought, what else can I do? Why not go back to what I love?" she said. 

Connection with fellow GBC grad moves her career forward 

Gueye restarted her journey in the skilled trades with help from the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN). Through this non-profit labour coalition, she received training and landed an apprenticeship through TCBN's NexGen Builders program. While volunteering for TCBN and handing out flyers, she met fellow GBC grad Chris Campbell, who is the TCBN Chair, Vice-President of the Carpenter's Union Local 27 and Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Carpenter's Regional Council.  

That connection got her union membership and her first construction job working on a hotel as part of the massive Woodbine Casino expansion in north Etobicoke. 

"There were 350 guys. I was the only Black woman there,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking, but it was a dream come true." 

Since then, Gueye has worked on a wide range of construction sites for commercial, education, and residential projects.  

Facing fears and reaching new career heights 

A job at the site of The Well, a large mixed-use (residential, retail, and office space) project at King Street West and Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto, challenged her in new ways.  

"I was a scaffolding technician, and believe it or not, I was petrified of heights," she said. "But I was able to overcome that by just saying yes to myself." 

"For one of the projects, we had to work on the roof," she added. "I was shaking so much I was on my stomach. I didn't want my colleagues to see that I was scared." 

By the end of the day, she was installing scaffolding. She says she's no longer afraid of heights but plans to test this one final time with a trip to the CN Tower's glass floor observation area. 

"If I can stand there, it means I'm good now," she said, laughing. 

Check out great images of Gueye working among the scaffolding in a 2022 Toronto Life feature about high-rise construction workers. 

A committed community builder and leader 

As Gueye continues building a fulfilling second career, she dedicates time to mentoring and giving back to the community. She advocates for people of all ages to take up the skilled trades, particularly women and people from diverse communities, and outlines the excellent career prospects, job security and good pay. 

"Our parents tell us about becoming a doctor, an engineer or a bank teller, but nothing about construction," she said. 

Her tireless advocacy led to her current position as the Community Partnership Co-ordinator for the Carpenters' Regional Council

Before she started working in the trades, Gueye put her GBC carpentry training to good use as a volunteer builder with Habitat for Humanity and Million Dollar Smiles, constructing playgrounds for children with critical illnesses. 

An active community builder outside of the trades, Gueye co-founded Global Connection Venture to specialize in investment and economic development in different countries in North America, Africa, and Asia.  

She's been honoured many times for her tireless and inspiring commitment to helping others, including the following: 

  • Afropolitan Canada’s 2023 Changemaker Award 
  • TCBN NexGen Builders Champion Award for 2022, recognizing her efforts to increase diversity in the skilled trades and for her role as a mentor to industry newcomers.   
  • Canadian Women's Executive Network (WXN), Top 100 Award winner, 2022.  
  • Ted Rogers Humanitarian Award, 2019  
  • CIBW, Canada's Top 100 Black Women, 2016 

"I noticed that I was ecstatic every time I helped someone if they fulfilled what they had wanted. Sometimes they'd say, 'Rok, you're even happier than me,'" she said. "It was because it was as if I had won. It's something that filled me up to want to do more." 

"As my grandma always said, when you're rising, make sure you're not going alone. Go rise with other people." 

George Brown College Black Futures Month celebrations continue throughout February. Organized by Black Futures Initiatives with support from the Office of Anti-Racism, Equity and Human Rights Services and other college departments, the entire GBC community is invited to this month's events. Learn more at