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Recruiting tomorrow’s skilled trades workforce starts today

A small town career showcase demonstrates the importance of the long game


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May 22, 2018 by John Bleasby

The campaign to develop the skilled workforce of the future doesn’t get more grassroots than this. The village of Elmvale is little more than a crossroad in rural Southern Ontario, known throughout Simcoe County for its outstanding Bavarian bakery. Yet on a beautiful afternoon in mid-May, the local hockey rink was transformed into a Skilled Trades Expo, ready to welcome hundreds of elementary students bussed in from across the County. It was an event made even more remarkable by a partnership of players committed to a long term development strategy — local and provincial governments, the county board of education, Georgian College, and local industry.

One of the most popular displays was the hands-on opportunity to build miniature roof trusses and have them stress tested.
(photo: John Bleasby)

It’s never too early to start talking up the trades
Government, educators and industry know the campaign to encourage youth workers into the skilled trades must begin at the earliest level —that’s why this Expo exists. Showcasing the trades to Grade Eight students is part of that process. Students ready to enter secondary school can make course choices that lead towards a future career in the trades, even to the point of starting Level One apprenticeship programs while still in high school.

In Ontario, the program is called OYAP, the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program. The program “opens the door for students to explore and work in apprenticeship occupations starting in Grade 11 or Grade 12 through the Cooperative Education program,” their website explains.

Skilled trades showcases are just one piece in the puzzle
The Simcoe County Skilled Trades Expo in Elmvale is only part of the overall game plan.
“What this one component does is engage students, employers and parents. That could be anywhere from kindergarten to Grade 12,” Sarah Kerewich, Manager of Communications for the Simcoe County District School Board explained to Canadian Contractor. “We do programming, information nights, skilled trades expos, field trips, even tours of facilities for teachers so they can learn about the opportunities.”

What happens next is that if students make the right selections, they can enroll in a cooperative education program in the trades. “That’s where they get out of the schools and work alongside a skilled trade employer,” Kerewich continued, “Further to that, students who are genuinely interested and have a skill level, ability and an interest shared by their employer can actually sign up to become an apprentice while working towards their high school diploma.”

It sounds like a terrific concept, but the level of engagement demonstrated by local industry at the Expo was equally impressive. What could be the motivation for them to be here promoting their companies to kids at the elementary school level?

A dexterity test gave students a chance to see if a career in machining was in their future
(photo: John Bleasby)

Call it a shared vision of how to deal with the future needs of industry. “We’re really trying to move in a direction where OYAP is part of the solution,” said Kerewich. “What employers are realizing is that all the trades are looking for skilled workers. If you’re not prepared to be part of the solution, you’re making it more and more difficult to find those skilled trades people that you need for your business to succeed and grow. We the school boards have the raw material, and industry has the ability to train them. So how can we partner and make it all hugely beneficial?”

Breaking through the perception that only university degrees lead to successful adult working careers is another big part of OYAP‘s mission. That’s one reason why this Expo was staying open after 7pm. Over 100 parents had signed up to visit after supper to see for themselves the potential future for their children.

“90 per cent of success is just showing up” (anonymous)
What trades were represented at this Expo in Elmvale? Over 35, including welding, machining, injection molding, plumbing, power line services, excavation, electrical, concrete forming, and more.  Almost all were hands-on working displays, reflecting an awareness of what attracts young people that really impressed Barrie contractor Richard Speare while walking around the exhibits. However, Speare also noticed that there was no representation by the home building industry whatsoever — not a single builder and not one home building or construction association. It hardly speaks to a successful outcome in terms of recruiting new talent. It also begs the question whether these associations and their members are either unaware of these promotional opportunities or have simply declined the opportunity to be involved.

“Someone should be here,” said Speare. “And rather than just one company taking it all on themselves, maybe the regional home building associations or the Barrie Construction Association could have a presence. It’s a worthwhile investment.”

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