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Encouraging youth to consider the skilled trades

In 2020, the Ontario government promised to invest $75 million to expose high school students to the skilled trades. This was a lofty endeavor considering technology courses were being cut, school budgets slashed, higher class sizes implemented, and mandatory online learning was introduced. Two years later Monte McNaughton, Ontario Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training, and Skills Development, continues to stress that “Our mission is to get more people into the skilled trades across Ontario… There are a lot of people retiring out of the skilled trades and for far too long governments have said the only way to be successful is to go to university.” He further states, “These are opportunities we need to tell parents, young people, and educators that they are purpose driven careers and we need to get people in here” (“Province commits $1.5 million for skilled trades in the north.”

Fast forward to 2023 and where are we now? How successful have government initiatives been in enticing students to enter the trades? How well versed are educators in the apprenticeship pathway as a viable option for our youth? Data from November 2022 lists 116,499 registered apprentices in Ontario. Of that number, 24% identified as female and only 6% are under the age of 20 (Apprenticeships-Open Government Portal). Many government initiatives target secondary school students who can begin their apprenticeship journey as early as grade 11 in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP). The government lists 14,335 secondary students as participating in OYAP in 2020. Last year the numbers increased to 17, 689. However, looking at registered apprentices with an actual training agreement in 2020 the number is only 2,588. Only 18% of those participants actually became registered apprentices the following year. Research needs to be conducted to determine why such a small number pursued the skilled trade pathway. A likely reason is that employers require more enticements to register a student while they are still in school.

Even with all of the awareness launched around skilled trades professionals and the attempt to recruit young people into the trades, many negative perceptions continue to exist. Students, their parents and guardians, and even many educators think that being a skilled trade professional is an entry level, low paying, dirty job. “These are good paying jobs with pensions and benefits, where you can buy a home and raise a family,” McNaughton states. The average salary for an apprentice in Ontario is approximately $49,000, (Apprentice average salary in Canada, 2023 “,” 2022) with a starting salary of approximately $35,000. There is the added appeal that an apprentice is earning while they learn and often have little or no student debt by the time they are qualified in their early 20s.

The biggest misperception that needs to be challenged is that a career in the skilled trades is for students who lack the ability to go to college or university. Changing this mindset starts with educators in the system.

During COVID-19 many Ontarians had the ability to work from home. Trades professionals did not have that option and most remained gainfully employed. Several memes were created on social media during the pandemic due to the high demand of trades professionals that included sentiments like, “I appreciate the person with an art or history degree… but I NEED that driver, mechanic, butcher, plumber, carpenter, welder, lineman.”

“As educators, we need to stop telling our kids that a four year degree is the only path to success,” states John Delorey, Chair of Technological Education/Construction Teacher at Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute. Career options in the skilled trades need to be highlighted in every secondary course. Those who work with students need the background knowledge to support student choice in this pathway.

We can assist all educators in their acknowledgement that “Skilled trades are highly valued and often overlooked when people are searching for career paths,” as McNaughton comments. Every school board has an OYAP coordinator that can come into classes to provide presentations or attend school open houses. Every school board has access to Dual Credit programs in which students can try a first year college course while still in high school. Many of these are offered in trades-related areas. Most schools also have at least one Specialist High Skills Major program, again often in a trades area. Guidance staff can be provided with slide decks for reference, and posters are available from that highlight the advantages of the different pathways available for students, including apprenticeship. Looking forward, lesson plans could be developed in every subject area that demonstrate how skilled trades and relevant careers match the curriculum.

Skilled trades are necessary and it is vital for our students to be aware of all opportunities for their future. But don’t take our word for it—listen to the voices of our students. Simon Sebesta and Luukas Niemisto, recent graduates from Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Thunder Bay. Simon participated in the Specialist High Skills Major program in manufacturing. As part of this training program he gained many certifications including First Aid, CPR, Working at Heights, Aerial Lift Platform training, and Confined Space Awareness training. As well, he participated in a dual credit college course that was team taught with a Confederation College instructor where he earned a portion of his Shielded Metal Arc Welding College welding credit. He was also able to gain an apprenticeship at Canadian Pacific Rail as a Railway Car Mechanic through the opportunities presented to him while in school. He notes that,

One of the requirements to be hired was to attend training in Winnipeg for two weeks before I started my three-year apprenticeship in September 2022.

In my daily activities, on the job I have used my welding skills to repair various components on the railcars.

Other things I have learned to do include moving railcars with a track mobile, how to operate a forklift, changing wheels on the railcars, and inspecting trains.

I also get the chance to go out of town on road trips to repair railcars and locomotives.

It has been an amazing opportunity to work with new people and to work on numerous projects and tasks.

Focusing on the trades in high school, [and especially] welding, was a good choice because it has allowed me to get a job right out of school and I feel it will be a lifelong career for me.

Luukas was given a taste of the skilled trades during a reach ahead summer program at Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute which offers a welding camp for Grade 8 students during July each year. Luukas registered for the reach ahead program where he was able to earn a high school credit in Exploring Technologies (TIJ101). Lucas says:

This exposure to the skilled trades gave me a desire to learn more about hands-on learning.

In grades 9 through 12, I took most of the technological educational classes offered at my school.

After graduation from Superior, I enrolled in the one year welding techniques program at Confederation College.

This program provided both the theoretical and hands-on knowledge required to advance all of my skills obtained over the years, including the ability to test for my Shielded Metal Arc Welding ticket.

With a reference from my instructors, I was given an interview at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America local 1669, Thunder Bay.

I wrote the mathematical aptitude tests and within three days, I was working in Kapuskasing as a carpenter/welder on the Little Long Hydro Dam project.

This has been a great experience. I live in a remote camp environment where I work 14 days on and 7 days off.

I am enjoying applying my skills and education but also meeting people from all over Canada and the world.

It is helpful for the government to infuse dollars into trades programs and aggressively advertise the need for apprentices, but without the support of front line educators, and providing resources to assist them, many students would miss out on knowing about the career of a lifetime!


About Eleanor MacNiven and John Delorey
Eleanor MacNiven is a Member of the Teacher Bargaining Unit of District 29, Hastings—Prince Edward. John Delorey is a Member of the Teacher Bargaining Unit of District 6A, Thunder Bay.

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