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How Trades Programs are Building The Future of Education

Accessibility is key for growing awareness of and enrollment in skilled trades programs, as well as extended learning. Reaching out to students where they are, on their phones, could be the hook needed to boost engagement.
Accessibility is key for growing awareness of and enrollment in skilled trades programs, as well as extended learning. Reaching out to students where they are, on their phones, could be the hook needed to boost engagement.

Our engagement with students can drive them to be lifelong learners, instead of earning their degree and never enrolling again. Making essential Workforce Development programs in areas such as trades more accessible through personalized connections can help with that engagement and, in turn, streamline the upskilling and reskilling process.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important to make skilled trade and technology education more accessible to Ontarians?

Ian Howcroft (IH): It’s crucial because the economic well-being of Ontario and Canada depend on it. We already have a severe shortage of skilled trades workers and technology workers that’s only going to intensify and get even more difficult as we go forward. Demographics are working against us. More people are retiring and leaving the workforce than there are joining it.

So, we need to make sure we’re tapping into as many pools of potential and future workers as possible. It takes three, four years or more to develop the skills to become an apprentice, a journey person. It’s crucial that we continue to offer these opportunities to young people, their parents and a broader business audience, so people understand that a more coordinated and collaborative approach to designing and developing solutions helps us deal with the shortages we’re experiencing. And as I said, it will get even more intense over the next five to ten years.

Paul Clipsham (PC): I would add that these are great careers for young people and anyone really. In construction, for example, workers consistently report higher levels of job satisfaction than in corporate careers, and they’re paid well. These, among others, are things people aren’t necessarily aware of. So, we want to let people know about these great careers as well.

Evo: How important is it for folks in the skilled trades and technology sectors to pursue learning as a lifelong endeavor, rather than just at the start of their careers?

IH: It’s crucial in almost all areas of the skilled trades and technology. Even the traditional trades have changed dramatically by using more and more technological advancements. The equipment they use is far different than what it was ten or even five years ago. It’s all CNC now; you are programming the equipment to do the work, as opposed to manually doing the work.

Technology is going to continue having an evolving impact on the work and how it’s done. So, skilled workers will have to upskill if they want to continue ensuring their employability. But when you become a skilled trades person, you’ve got a great foundation to build upon, and some people want use that as the door opener for their careers and continue, while others say, “I want to keep my hand on the tools, but I also want to maybe hire three or four people and build a business around this as well.”

So, then you need to bring in other skills too: some business skills, accounting skills, marketing skills. So, this is a great opportunity for anybody looking for a path that gives them exposure to the skilled trades and other opportunities that they may grow from. We try to make sure people are aware of all aspects of a skilled trade, as is getting young people’s parents to understand them.

Many people have a negative image of the skilled trades. They are viewing them through a 20- or 30-year-old lens as a low-paid career opportunity for kids who can’t get into university, which is far from the truth. They say, “Oh, it’s for kids that want to work with their hands,” which is absolutely true, but it’s also for kids that also want to work with their heads. The two are not mutually exclusive. You need to work well with your hands and well with your head because these are jobs that take a great deal of intelligence and skill to develop.

Evo: Historically, why have folks been so hesitant and reluctant to enroll in these kinds of programs?

IH: There’s a longstanding negative stigma that is hard to break, but I think it has changed or is changing. Groups like Skills Ontario, which started just over 30 years ago, have grown and spawned organizations in every jurisdiction in Canada. It all started in Barrie, Ontario, but now there’s one in every province, every territory with the national office. So, we are making headway and making a huge impact, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Many people still hold that old stigma. It’s getting better in that some who previously held a negative view now at least say, “Oh, that’s a great job for my friends’ kids, not necessarily for my kids.”

We want everybody to say, “Hey, this is a career path that my kids should consider.” Not everybody is going to want to be a skilled trades person or a technology worker, but we need to give everybody the information they need to assess all career opportunities and educational paths when making their choice. It’s not that university or college is better than an apprenticeship or vice versa. They’re different, and they go along with everybody’s different interests. You might not make the right choice for yourself if you’re not aware of what that opportunity’s all about.

PC: To Ian’s point, it’s really the exposure, or lack thereof, that presents a real challenge. There was a period where labs and shop classes weren’t necessarily available at all schools, and they still aren’t to some extent. Many are just not given the opportunity to try hands-on learning. So, we’re trying to counteract that through our programming to provide hands-on learning opportunities to give people a sense of what the related careers are all about. We’re building a truck, which is essentially a giant mobile experiential learning classroom and the app.

Evo: How is the Skills Ontario app expected to help overcome some of the hurdles to access that exist in the industry?

IH: We’re promoting skilled trades and careers in technology, so why don’t we use technology to allow students to get information, to access some of these career opportunities, to do an online assessment of where they might want to go, where their interests take them career-wise?

We put this together on different careers you can delve in, as deeply as one wants, to get more information about a particular occupation. There are 144 skilled trades in Ontario. We have not yet added all 144 to the app, but between 50 and 60 are there. So, you get a good sense of what those opportunities are about. And we’re trying to connect with young people in the way that they communicate to give them more opportunity to explore and access other information. The app gives them something they can quickly look at, on which they can do an assessment and explore educational and some career pathways.

PC: I would add that we’ve learned from our stakeholders, and we know from experience that there are few tools [available] to guidance counselors, students and teachers oriented toward skilled trades and tech that everybody’s familiar with. There are general personality type indicators and stuff like that, but they don’t necessarily highlight the trades or careers in technology.

So, we saw a gap there as well that we were hoping to address by offering some information and seeing whether they have an interest or an aptitude toward the trades through a quiz. We also link to related events and partners who are training institutions or colleges.

Evo: What role do postsecondary institutions play in accelerating the province’s skills agenda to create these pathways for folks to access this kind of learning?

PC: They are starting to evolve. We talked earlier about the need for continuous lifelong learning in the trades. So, they brought in microcredentials, so people can continue to evolve and learn throughout their careers. And again, deploying technologies in line with the way young people are learning is important. And that was part of the premise behind the app—we need to be where young people are already accessing information. At the time, we did not really have anything on mobile.

IH: Of all the colleges in Ontario, 24 of them have partnered with Skills Ontario, and they make up a very important community for us. They do a lot of the skilled trades training and technology training. We also recognize the importance of STEM; a whole variety of our offerings involve the STEM skills. So, we’ve developed a great relationship with the colleges. We are exploring how we can engage universities. They have a different view of students and offer them different things than colleges do, but they complement one another. And we’re trying to find the best way forward when we’re promoting skilled trades to them.

How do we ensure our programming, our competitions are fresh and relevant both now and in the future. As I said, we have great relationships with the colleges, but we do want to explore what else can we do with universities. It’s not perhaps as natural a fit in all areas, but I think there are opportunities there we need to discuss and further explore. Colleges have been great about working with us because we’re part of their entry into high schools—we work with all the school boards.

Now, everything we do is virtually, but we do look forward to getting back to in-person events. Last year, we gave about 2000 classroom presentations to promote the skilled trades and technologies. And when we have our in-person event at the Toronto Conference Centre, we get almost 40,000 visitors. We have 2,500 kids competing in 70 different discreet contests in all areas from culinary arts to mechatronics, to industrial mode of power, the service sector, construction…

It’s an amazing event held over two and a half days. We also host the largest young woman’s conference and a fast-growing FNMI indigenous conference, too. Our largest Young Woman’s Conference welcomed about 2000 girls and young women in person, but last year, when we had to hold it virtually, we got between 7,000 and 8,000 girls and young women. And some boys and young men came because they couldn’t break out the classes.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the work you guys have done to help make skills education more accessible to Ontarians?

IH: Timing is always important, and we have that on our side right now, as people seem to be recognizing the shortage of skilled workers out there. Some construction sites can’t work to their full potential because they can’t get the workers they need. And I think the pandemic has also shown us what jobs are critical to our economy and society. Whether you’re living outside Toronto or living on the 38th floor of a downtown apartment building or condo, you’ll definitely notice the huge shortage of operators, workers and technicians who fix things.

PC: I would encourage anybody thinking about careers or looking at different options to check out our website and download the Skills Ontario app. It’s not intended to be the panacea of information, but we provide a lot of really good content that just helps people explore the trades and tech pathways, learn about what to expect in those careers in terms of salary and work life and connects them with resources and educational institutions that can help them along that journey.

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