The demand for crafts is increasing. So what stands in the way of more apprenticeships?
Though he once considered dropping out of school, 12th-grade student Nathan Godet says he’s showing up earlier now thanks to an engaging course, which is the first time he’s enjoyed going to class.
The 17-year-old says his collaborative course in the construction industry increased his interest in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry – which he was already familiar with from his family background – and helped him find a specialty he wants to pursue: work as a gas technician.
“I don’t think I would be in school now without this program,” Godet said. “I’d probably be working minimum wage now.”
Classmate Khate Agne says the collaborative course — in which Toronto District School Board students learn at carefully selected job sites — helped broaden their horizons and gave the grade 11 student insight into different career paths.
“I could study, but slowly I’m actually orienting myself towards … manual trades,” says the 17-year-old, who is interested in carpentry and construction management.
There are more Canadians nearing retirement than young people entering the workforce, and the demand for a new generation of skilled workers is growing rapidly. New enrollments in apprenticeship programs have risen, according to Statistics Canada, amid record-high job vacancies in sectors such as construction and manufacturing. But programs have taken a major hit during the pandemic, and apprenticeships and trade certification have yet to catch up to pre-COVID-19 levels.
CLOCK | The drive to attract younger, diverse students to the craft professions:
Provinces have responded to this labor shortage in a variety of ways.
BC encourages apprenticeship and start-up training places, while Alberta invests in skilled worker training for women. Last week, Ontario introduced a mandatory technology education credit for high school students, allowing young people to enter full-time teaching from 11th grade.
But there are still some issues that need to be addressed, according to craft trainers.
Elvy Moro, one of the two teachers who run Godet and Agne’s Step to Construction co-op class, has seen an increasing interest in the program over the past 17 years as Canada’s need for younger craftsmen has increased.
His students try many jobs in just a few months—perhaps spending a few weeks on-site with carpenters, followed by time with builders, sheet metal workers, electricians, plumbers, and so on. He calls it a phenomenally engaging, hands-on experience that helps many students figure out what fits.
“Our philosophy is to expose them as much as possible and then give them the opportunity to make those important decisions in life — and help them make the right decision,” Moro said.
CLOCK | Pupils and teachers tell how a building cooperative can help to broaden the pupils’ horizons:
But a major obstacle standing in the way of these courses is the lack of educators, says Matthew Bradley, TDSB coordinator for the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), who stopped by Moro’s class last week.
Over the past decade, there has been an overwhelming increase in demand for skilled artisans, as well as lucrative wages for the most desirable of them, but Bradley points out that this has coincided with a doubling of teacher training time from one to two years for New Ontario educators. For this reason, it has become less attractive for an experienced journeyman to switch to a new teacher – not to mention the significant pay cut that he believes this change entails.
“Across the province, there are many vacancies in shops like this because they don’t have a qualified teacher,” he explained, noting that the better recognition of work experience for trainee teachers and the starting pay are more comparable to what having earned them skilled tradesmen would help more people to consider the switch.
According to Bradley, the profiling of the job description is also absolutely necessary.
“Most people are totally unaware of teaching,” he noted, calling it a common misconception among parents, students, and the wider community that university and college are the only options after high school.
“From BC to Alberta, Ontario and the Maritimes, everyone is crying out for more skilled tradespeople,” he said. “We need employers, we need parents, we need careers advisers, we need teachers and students who all understand the value of apprenticeship.”
Classify crafts as “sexy”.
Mandy Rennehan saw an opportunity in construction 30 years ago as a teenager in Yarmouth, NS. Despite her early interest and talent, no one encouraged her in this direction at the time. Still, she went ahead.
“Nobody in the high schools, none of my people around me – especially as a woman – told me to go into the craft trade because that’s not the path [people] would be worshiped. They wouldn’t get any praise there,” says the construction mogul and HGTV host Trading with Mandy Rennehan recalled in an interview from Naples, Florida.
Today, the founder and CEO of retail construction and maintenance company Freshco uses her decades of experience and passion for the craft to champion it and dispel the stigma that can surround it. Like the notion that trading careers are back-breaking menial work, offer little intellectual stimulation, or are just not for women.
Describing artisans as polymaths Canadians should value and be proud of, Rennehan says what really needs is for the craft to be showcased “for the sexy, essential, opportunity-packed industry that it is.”
Robotics, computer simulators, artificial intelligence, advanced tools and new technologies are transforming these careers in exciting ways that they believe should deserve more respect and attention.
In turn, Rennehan says, the sectors themselves need to redouble policies and workflows that make the craft a place where women and diverse communities feel a sense of belonging.
She believes that today’s young apprentices will transform professions from within, having learned more about racism, discrimination and the importance of tolerance, equality and inclusion than previous generations.
“More women and more young men entering the trades [valuing equality] will really help the industry.”
Ongoing learning, training “supercritical”
After running his own repair shop for nearly two decades, Mike Bocsik returned to Camosun College, his alma mater in Victoria, where he spent the last 12 years as an automotive instructor.
In his experience, today’s students want to focus fully on what they are learning and are hungry for depth, detail and current industry developments. According to Bocsik, this means that the instructors have to be “on the ball”.
Regardless of how long tradespeople have been at the job, he points out that they need regular, ongoing training to keep up with technological advances — which arrive in the automotive industry on an almost quarterly basis.
“If you let things stagnate, you will [fall] back,” he said. “It’s extremely important to continue upgrading and just moving forward.”
Bocsik says his students “want to start right away,” which is working well as industry employers are constantly approaching the college looking for new trainees.
He believes the education sector and the crafts industry should work together to create more opportunities and facilities for students to learn and gain hands-on experience to get into jobs quickly.
Some programs — like Camosun’s automotive training, which covers the fast-growing electric vehicle industry — currently have multi-year waiting lists.
Another initiative Bocsik would like to see soon is more opportunities for experienced professionals – including those nearing retirement – to pass on their decades of knowledge and guide younger colleagues to fulfilling and rewarding careers.
While he says the best way forward is to focus on the idea that crafting is a career and not just a job, Bocsik also notes that the current labor shortage means apprentices can find jobs quickly .
“If you want it, you will get it.”