Apprenticeship competition aims to draw attention to looming shortage of skilled trades workers in Canada

Adrian Schut came from a family of scientists and PhD recipients. In high school, he earned math marks in the 90s and won competitions in robotics technology. By all accounts, he seemed destined for an academic career. Teachers encouraged him to become an engineer.

When he decided to pursue a career in carpentry, his parents remained supportive but teachers’ support soured.

“You’re wasting your life,” they told him.

Perhaps as a result of that negative stigma, the construction industry says it is facing a looming shortage of skilled trades workers. Indeed, Canada is estimated to need one million skilled trades workers by 2020 and the residential housing industry alone is expected to require nearly 100,000 more by 2023.

With that in mind, a competition this week in Toronto aims to challenge negative stereotypes and encourage more Canadians to consider a career in the skilled trades.

The national apprenticeship competition, hosted by the Ontario carpenters’ union, will run from August 21 to 23 at Roundhouse Park in Toronto. The contest involves 36 trades apprentices from across the country competing for the title of national champion in their area of trade: carpentry, millwright, drywall and flooring.

On Friday, competitors will write a three-hour theory test to measure their skills in their specific trade. On Saturday, they prove their skills with a hands-on competition. Carpenters may be asked to build gazebos while floor covering apprentices carry out a complex flooring project.

People see trades as a third option for post-secondary school

Colleen Dignam, provincial training co-ordinator with the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, said the union hopes competitions like these increase exposure of trades as a career option for young people.

“A lot of times people see trades as a third option for post-secondary school,” she said.

Parents and teachers sometimes see trades as an area for “those who couldn’t cut it” in college or university, Ms. Dignam said.

“I don’t know many college or university programs that allow people to come out with minimal debt and at the same time be able to make $70,000 a year their first year they’ve completed their training,” she said.

A carpenters’ apprentice in Ontario starts out earning around $38,500 annually. A certified carpenter in Toronto earns around $80,000 a year, Ms. Dignam said.

She sees two groups coming into the industry: young people who want to explore a different career after years in another field and people in their 30s or 40s who have just been laid off and see an opportunity to retrain. The average age of an apprentice is 27.

Daniel Moxom is a 28-year-old from Scarborough who will compete for the title of best floor layer in this weekend’s competition.

Like many others in the industry, he always knew he wanted to be a tradesperson.

He grew up in England helping his grandfather, a firefighter, with projects around the house.

“He started me playing with tools at an early age,” he said. “From that, I realized I’d rather be working with my hands than [doing] anything else.”

He moved to Canada at age 13, graduated from high school and started his apprenticeship at age 23. In January he became a journeyman.

Though he has many friends in the trades, in six years, he’s only met two female floor installers, something he says needs to change.

“We’d definitely be open to having more women… I think it’s mainly because we’re not showing them the opportunity,” he said, adding that high schools should do a better job promoting skilled trades to women.

I had never touched a tool before

In 2012, women represented only 4% of the construction trade workforce, according to Statistics Canada.

“When I went to high school 10 years ago, the skilled trades were not an option,” said Natalee Lewis, who is about to start an apprenticeship as a plumber. She graduated at the top of her class in high school and graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa with a bachelor’s degree in history and Canadian studies. After bouncing around from job to job in marketing and the entertainment industry, she eventually landed at Skills Canada.

With exposure to opportunities in the skilled trades and demand for workers, she decided to try plumbing. Ms. Lewis registered for an apprenticeship program at Sheridan College in Toronto.

“To be honest, I had never touched a tool before,” she said.

Now 28, Ms. Lewis said she says she finds personal and financial gratification in working towards becoming a plumber.
While she values her university education, “it’s time for a blue-collar career to be put on the same conversation table as a white-collar career for Canada’s future.”

Source: The National Post, Katrina Clarke

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