Interest in skilled trades growing
Mike Haefele performs a hard-wire weld in 3G position at the Niagara Welding Academy on Thursday.
Local educational institutions say they are doing their best to fill the needs of companies like Trenergy Inc.
In the Standard Wednesday, Trenergy Inc. president Victor Oreskovich bemoaned the fact he can’t find enough skilled tradesmen, such as welders, fitters and engineering technicians.
He said the company of 140 employees will need to add another 200 workers as it fills orders for the manufacture of rail crude-oil tanks.
Oreskovich said one of the reasons there is a shortage of skilled tradesmen is a Canadian culture that does not sufficiently promote those careers as being “as respectable as any vocation.”
But the District School Board of Niagara’s technology consultant Kevin Graham disagreed, saying that is no longer the case.
He said high school programs that prepare students for careers in skilled trades have swelled in recent years.
Graham said the Ministry of Education mandated the specialist high skills major program in 2007-08 to encourage Grade 11 and 12 students to focus their education on a specific employment sector.
The DSBN “started off with just one program,” Graham said. “This year, we’ve got 48 different programs. Over 1,000 students are involved with specialist high skills major.”
While students in the program still must meet the educational requirements for a high school diploma, they tailor the balance of their classes based on their career focus.
The DSBN offers the program in 13 economic sectors, including manufacturing.
“We’ve been really promoting the specialist high skills major within DSBN,” Graham said. “That’s one avenue for promoting skilled trades, because a lot of the specialist high skills majors are skilled trade-oriented.”
Graham said three students recently won gold medals for welding, electrical and refrigeration in a provincial skilled trades competition.
“That alone promotes the skilled trades with other students,” he said.
He said careers in skilled trades are being embraced.
“I think parents are realizing that skilled trades are a great avenue.”
Graham said of the 1,000 students in the Niagara board’s specialist high skills major program, 300 took part in the Ontario youth apprenticeship program. It allows high school students, via a co-op placement, to get an early start on the hours they will be required to have worked to complete a trade apprenticeship.
Graham said the number of DSBN students going the apprenticeship route is growing.
“I think parents are becoming more aware. I think educators are becoming more aware. And kids are becoming more aware that the skilled trades are good-paying jobs,” he said.
Mishek Mwaba, Niagara College’s dean of media and technology, said the college aims to graduate students with skills required by local industry.
As it pertains to the problem faced by Oreskovich at Trenergy Inc., Mwaba said the college has experienced increased interest in its welding programs — the one-year welding techniques program and the two-year welding technician program.
“Those are programs that are very popular,” Mwaba said. “We’ve got waiting lists. In fact, the only thing that is limiting us from expanding is the fact we are now at capacity.”
Capacity for the two programs is 50 students. The college also has night classes for students enrolled in the Ministry of Training,
Colleges and Universities apprenticeship program.
Mwaba agrees with Oreskovich that more interest needs to be generated to get people into skilled trades. He said the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities needs to do a better job of recruiting trade program graduates into apprenticeship programs.
The apprenticeship model works, Mwaba said, by way of the ministry entering into a contract in which an employer sponsors an employee.
That employee gains work experience combined with further classroom training at different intervals during the apprenticeship. The ministry is responsible for assuring colleges can accommodate those apprentices.
Upon finishing the required number of work hours and academic standing, apprentices become journeymen.
Mwaba said news in recent years of plant closures and the belief there are no jobs for skilled tradesmen, contributed to fewer people entering trade schools. He cited as an example the mechanical techniques program at Niagara College that has not been offered the past two years because there has been no demand.
“It’s become a chicken and egg situation,” Mwaba said.
“The employers are telling us they need a lot of people…. The other piece that’s missing now is how do we take that messaging to mom and dad so that they can encourage their son and daughter this is where the future is.”
Mwaba said part of the solution is for industry and colleges to work with school boards to promote the need for people trained in skilled trades to high school students.
Deryck Brown, an instructor at Niagara Welding Academy on Cushman Rd. in St. Catharines, said the school receives calls from employers far and wide.
“We receive calls from companies looking for people all the time,” Brown said.
The school teaches welding to approximately 33 students in two groupings, Brown said. Students put in 780 hours of hands-on training over the 26-week course, Brown said.
Specialist High Skills Major
The District School Board of Niagara offers the specialist high skills major in 13 economic sectors:
Agriculture, arts and culture, business, construction, energy, environment, health and wellness, horticulture, hospitality and tourism, information and communication technology, manufacturing, sports, transportation