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Trading Up

Susan Notes: Three cheers for this important article about the upcoming shortage of electricians, welders, and carpenters in Canada. One can wonder when the U. S. media will publish an article extolling the value of blue collar careers. NOTE: If trades still don't have the prestige, they do have the salary: It's not unusual in Vancouver these days for an electrician or a plumber to be earning $100,000.

Note the weasel statement of the British Columbia Business Council. Parents downgrade an education in the trades for their children because Big Business has been pushing the college for all message for decades.

It is the final day of high school, and Andrew Eade is in the kitchen fussing over his hors d'oeuvre. In his latex-gloved palm, he rolls mounds of sticky-sweet carmelized onions that he slips into miniature tart shells. On his head is a starched, freshly ironed chef's hat. Beneath his apron, the baggy, black-and-white checkered pants of the culinary trade.

It is the final day of high school, and Andrew Eade is in the kitchen fussing over his hors d'oeuvre. In his latex-gloved palm, he rolls mounds of sticky-sweet carmelized onions that he slips into miniature tart shells. On his head is a starched, freshly ironed chef's hat. Beneath his apron, the baggy, black-and-white checkered pants of the culinary trade.

It is finicky work, and soon diners will start drifting into l'Auberge du Pommier, the swank French restaurant in North Toronto where Andrew works as a cook's apprentice. But he doesn't mind the pressure. "If I'm not in the kitchen enjoying myself, then why am I here?"

Just outside Ottawa, Michel Charron sets his alarm for the wee hours and leaps out of bed when it rings. For three months, his classroom has been a construction site, and he arrives well before sunrise to unlock the big metal tool boxes before the other workers shuffle in.

He, too, is a student apprentice, an electrician who loves to lay his coloured wire in perfectly even lines. "I'm sort of a perfectionist. I like the job to look really nice."

Like Andrew, he has no intention of going to university. They've both already found what they want to do with their lives -- and they aren't alone.

As budding apprentices in the skilled trades, Andrew and Michel are still on the road less travelled by Canadian high-school students. But the skilled trades, long dismissed by a generation of parents, students and educators as dirty grunt work for the not-so-bright, are on the verge of a comeback.

The message has already slipped into popular culture. Sit in a movie theatre or open a magazine like Canadian Living, and there is an image of a smiling young woman in a hard hat declaring that "opening my toolbox beats opening a briefcase, any day." Now even The Donald is getting into the act. The latest version of his reality-TV series The Apprentice pits street-smart, working-class stiffs against slick, Ivy League grads in the battle of wits for a six-figure salary with Trump Inc.

The motivation for Canadians is much the same: jobs. After years of pushing high-school grads into colleges and universities, the country is suffering a shortage of skilled blue-collar workers that is forecast to soar in the next few years as the baby-boom bulge of electricians, welders, and carpenters in their 50s starts to retire. Where plumbers and pipe fitters may once have struggled with meagre pay and even less respect, they are now commanding wages for their work that are thousands of dollars more than university graduates with desk jobs and a framed arts degree on the wall.

Now, while the average wage for all occupations in Canada stands at $18.06 an hour, plumbers and pipe fitters are making $21.65 and electricians are pocketing $22.90, fairly rolling in money next to the university grads with a bachelor's degree in English who collect an annual average of just $28,000 two years out of school -- about $15.39 an hour.

And the skilled trades are poised to become even more lucrative. In each of the next eight years, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada forecasts there will be 19,500 more jobs in the skilled trades than workers to fill them. By 2013, increasingly scarce contractors, electricians and plumbers could routinely be pulling down triple-digit salaries.

The appeal of careers has slowly started to dawn on schools that for decades have treated university as the standard beside which all other aspirations pale. More students are earning high-school credits with co-op job placements. Some, like Andrew, are starting formal training as apprentices without the normal prerequisite of a diploma -- even their tools sometimes are paid for.

Government, too, is alarmed by the looming shortages and stubborn high-school dropout rates. Ottawa and the provinces are shovelling millions of dollars into advertising campaigns and school-board pilot projects that plug the skilled trades to the one-half of all students who will never darken the doorstep of a college or university lecture hall.

Still, Canada remains a bastion of the ivory tower, producing more university and college graduates per capita than almost any other country.
It is one thing to talk about respecting blue-collar work, but quite another to shift the thinking of university-educated teachers and parents.

For example, Andrew's mother knew that he loved to cook. He invents recipes in his spare time, and for a few years has run a stall at a local organic market selling his homemade soups every Saturday morning. But "we always figured he would end up in science," says Jane Cooper-Eade, an elementary-school principal with two university degrees under her belt.

Even her son, surrounded by university-bound classmates, never imagined another path. At William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute, his middle-class high school in North Toronto known for its ace mathematics and computer-science courses, everyone knew the trades were for second-string students.

His epiphany struck on a mountain during a snowboarding trip a year ago: He wanted to work with his hands. His friends thought he was throwing his life away last fall when, while most of them headed for university to expand their minds, he headed for the kitchen to use his hands. It was not that his marks were low; just that he had no need for a degree where he wanted to be.

"Some of my friends said, 'Whoa. You're not coming with us? But you're such a smart guy.' They were so upset," he recalls. "I guess you'd call it peer pressure. But I had to be true and honest with myself."

His mother was convinced it was a passing fad and cajoled her younger son to apply to a handful of universities to keep the academic door propped open.

But Andrew dug in his heels. "I said, 'Nope,' " he remembers. "I had to choose my own path, rather than follow someone else's for me."

And so the principal, who had told other parents that children should be allowed to follow their hearts, had to swallow a dose of her own medicine.

"I think education and learning should be for life. And so, if you ask me, would I like Andrew to go to university? Yes, I'd probably like him to have that opportunity. And maybe one day he will. But for this part of his life, this is what he wants to do."

It used to be that young men headed for the work force the day after high-school graduation, if not before, and were none the worse for it. But more than ever before, dropping out of high school has become an express ticket to a low-wage job filling gas tanks.

Dropout rates vary across Canada, but roughly a quarter of students will leave high school without graduating, at least not their first time around.

In any one school, close to half will leave for the world of work with or without a diploma, although some will later return. About a quarter will head to college within a few years of graduating. A handful will enroll in a private vocational school. And the remaining one-quarter will be the privileged few who score the top marks, were the focus of the teachers'
efforts and followed the beaten path to a university campus.

"The system is driven by university ambitions," says Alan King, professor emeritus at Queen's University who has written a series of studies on the Ontario curriculum for the provincial government.

In a single-minded pursuit of academic performance, Canadian schools -- cheered on by parents -- have neglected students who are not cut out for a college or university education. Over the years, many schools have scrapped shop class -- no longer willing to upgrade aging technology -- and have replaced the old band saws and drills with state-of-the-art computers and laser printers. In Ontario, a stringent new curriculum has erased a year of high school for the university-bound and, as a side-effect, swollen the ranks of school dropouts from 22 per cent to 30 per cent -- among the highest in Canada.

"For those who drop out early," Dr. King adds, "the system does not appear to be serving them very well."

With its new curriculum, he discovered in his latest report, Ontario has raised the academic bar -- even in those courses geared to the work-bound -- to a level where students are failing courses in Grades 9 and 10 and, before long, dropping out of school in frustration. Almost as cruel, thousands of high-school students with feeble marks are applying to university in their final year, clinging futilely to the dream of an academic future.

"With so many students taking the university-bound program," he says, "there is not enough space for the schools to offer a full range of courses for those in other categories."

These are students who struggle with books and classroom notes, but might be prime candidates for the skilled trades. Instead, they leave high school with a lousy report card, bitter disappointment and bleak prospects for a career.

"Aspirations are making a mess of filling the trade needs in our country,"
Dr. King laments.

In a brand-new building in back of la Cité Collégiale campus in Ottawa, an unorthodox high school opened last year -- it ran out of portables for a few years before that -- with a mission to change those student aspirations.

At l'École Secondaire de Formation Professionnelle et Technique, a trade school styled in industrial chic with its spare concrete floors and exposed steel beams and sculptures in glass boxes of workers fashioned from nuts and bolts, there are no blackboards, books, paper, pens or homework. Not so much as a dictionary upon a shelf.

In its sterile classrooms are rows of computers where a colourful roster of students -- almost all with a history of failed courses, low marks and skipped classes in other schools -- will do every scrap of their schoolwork for the three months that they are here. For the three months after that, they work in whatever trade they wish.

If not for this fledgling school in Ottawa's Catholic French-language board, many of these students would never graduate. Some are dropouts back for a second crack. Half have been labelled with learning disabilities. Many have floundered in mainstream schools and are trying their hand at a trade.

PIF, as it's called, was founded by its principal, Robert Blanchard. For years, he taught students branded with learning disabilities who he was convinced were not disabled in the least -- rather they were concrete thinkers who learned by using their hands and were bored stiff sitting still in a classroom listening to a teacher drone.

"We were not teaching those students the right way," he says. "You have to show those students what to do. They don't want to be sitting at a desk. It has to be a job where they can move.

"We've developed an approach that's really visual," Mr. Blanchard says.
"When we teach, instead of telling the kids what to do, we let them discover what to do. It's the opposite of what they're doing in the regular classroom."

The school runs like a shipshape factory floor, with Mr. Blanchard as foreman and the students as workers. Students sign employment contracts.
They start the semester with three sick days, and are docked time for missing class. Once the time bank is gone, they lose 10 per cent of their final grade. When there is no longer a prospect of passing, they leave: Of the 125 enrolled when the semester began, only 88 remained at the end to write exams.

"Ninety per cent come back and try again," Mr. Blanchard says.

The approach certainly seems to have worked for Michel Charron. Like most of his classmates, he grew up assuming he was university-bound. But those aspirations collided with a grade average that was barely above 50 per cent.
He started skipping school, got into fights and, before long, was being suspended.

But as a budding electrician, he has thrived. In the classroom, he has passed all but one subject. On the construction site, he works long hours and basks in the accolades of the greying workers no longer as nimble as he is. Lying ahead are more college courses and at least 9,000 hours of work as an apprentice before he qualifies as a certified electrician. But he knows he has found his métier.

"I like what I do," says Michel, clasping together hands that already reveal the callused, dirt-stained badge of the working man. "My boss shows me how to do a job. 'Here's the blueprint. Go into the ceiling.' And I do it all.
He congratulates me and says what a good job I did. Nobody usually tells me I did that good a job."

As well, he has just bought his own car, a six-year-old blue Honda Civic he now drives to work from his parents' home in middle-class suburban Kanata.
Since he passed the first college course in his apprenticeship, worth both a high-school and college credit, the boss has paid him $10 an hour. Pay stub in hand, he brashly walked into the local bank manager's office and emerged with a $10,000 car loan.

"It's pretty luxurious for an 18-year-old, when you think about it," he beams, still in his plaid lumber jacket and well-worn steel-toed boots from a day on the job. "Some of my friends have nice cars, but mommy and daddy bought it for them."

PIF has been an even greater salvation to his friend Jonathan Caron.

In Grade 9 at a mainstream high school, he failed six of his eight subjects.
He could have taken courses that were less academic, but had felt shamed into signing up for the rigorous classes for the university-bound crowd.

Three years later, he has just written final exams for his high-school diploma and landed a full-time job as an apprentice bricklayer with an Ottawa construction company.

Already he knows the trick for mixing mortar to the proper consistency, and he handles the powerful blade that slices through bricks like an old hand.

It is hard, dusty labour on the construction site, and bone-chilling in a blustery Ottawa winter, but he has a flair for the job and works with a drive he never showed in a mainstream classroom.

"It's hard work, but I like it," he says. "The finishing of a house, when you're done, you look at it, and you're happy with yourself. I did this, you know?"

The shift is subtle, but college and university are starting to lose their be-all-and-end-all stature across Canada.

In Calgary, Diane Field is the principal of the brand-new Centennial High School, one of a handful to adopt a new, no-nonsense, ultra-pragmatic approach to teaching that pushes students to begin planning for their futures from the moment they cross the doorstep.

No more heading to university simply to defer choosing a vocation as long as possible. Here, students are compelled to think about their talents and interests. In one class, they assemble a master portfolio that is like an evolving résumé. For their electives, they are expected to choose courses that further their career ambitions. And part of their curriculum includes time working in the community.

It is a swing of the pendulum away from the university fixation and an antidote for the growing malaise among students who dismiss their courses as pointless. Over the next few years, the approach will spread to all Calgary Board of Education high schools.

"We believe that a program like this will engage students in their learning because all of their work is connected to the world or work," Ms. Field says.

In Victoria, Sarah Bender has certainly been "engaged" at school. After limping along with low marks and a bruised ego, she will graduate this spring with the first level of her apprenticeship training as a welder under her belt.

One of the first students in a high-school apprenticeship program launched by the B.C. government last year, she belongs to that rare breed of women who don work boots and hard hats. But she always knew she was cut out for the trades. As a child, she would help her father under the hood of the car.
In junior high, her report cards were littered with C's and C-minuses.

"I have never been academically smart, ever, in the whole time I've been in school," she says.

But she aced a mechanic's course in high school. "It was a skill I could apply to my life, rather than social studies, where it was just the history of Canada and I don't really care. It was something I could get interested in. If my car broke, I could fix it. It was logical for me."

Sarah has finished the first level of her welding certificate, but there is no work during the winter. She has a few more high-school courses to take before graduating, but when she returns to welding, she would like to work in Victoria's shipyard, building and repairing aluminum boats. "I'm smart," she says, "but it's just not book smart. It's like hands-on-skills kind of smart."

In British Columbia, the construction trades shortage looms especially large with the 2010 Olympics slated for Vancouver. With fewer and fewer people becoming apprentices, the province last year turned a government office that promoted the trades into a Crown corporation, known as the Industry Training Authority.

The authority has pledged money--to the tune of $2,750 for every student--for schools that recruit companies and colleges to offer apprenticeships to budding trades people like Sarah. Nearly 1,100 students have registered for the next semester, more than double the number in the one just ended.

"My goal is to open people's eyes to the choices and at the same time build some pride in the trades and get rid of the stigma," says Brian Clewes, who heads the authority.

"It's not unusual in Vancouver these days for an electrician or a plumber to be earning $100,000. That stacks up against anything else the kids might be considering."

Back in Ontario, where fewer high-school students are graduating, the rising dropout rate has rattled the government. Education Minister Gerard Kennedy has vowed to legislate students into staying in school until they're 18, and has worked to polish the image of the trades in speeches praising the four paths open to high-school students: university, college, work and apprenticeship.

Queen's Park has granted tax credits to companies that hire apprentices. It has tinkered with the high-school apprenticeship program to allow students to work on college and high-school credits simultaneously. School boards are hiring apprenticeship co-ordinators who are talking to elementary pupils about the trades. And the province has handed $18-million to school boards to run projects that promote blue-collar work. At the Algoma District School Board in Sault Ste. Marie, co-op students are working with a local contractor to build houses from scratch, from framing to drywall.

But the trades will be a hard sell nonetheless. Just last week, the British Columbia Business Council released a study that found, even though forecasts show that just 29 per cent of future jobs will require a degree, 59 per cent of parents want their children to attend university while just 10 per cent aspire to a trade certificate.

And in the international skills competitions held every year and attended by thousands of people, elite Canadian trades people perform no better than Canada's top Olympic athletes.

"We're not big medal winners," concedes Catherine Keill of Skills Canada, an agency that promotes the trades.

"When it comes to competing at an international level, we're dealing with countries that put a lot more prestige into these careers."

Canada still looks to foreign-trained immigrants to tile floors and shingle roofs. Over the course of the nineties, the number of apprentices in the work force declined. And while the number of apprentices is now climbing again in the fever of the building boom -- an all-time high of 235,000 Canadians were training in the trades in 2002 -- the number who actually finish their apprenticeships has slumped.

The new apprenticeship programs for high-school students, for their part, are still only drawing a sliver of students. Just 17,000 are enrolled as apprentices in Ontario, 2 per cent of high-school kids.

And now even the immigration system has started to favour a university degree, with a tougher rating system for would-be newcomers that disqualifies all but the most highly educated and has spawned an underground work force of an estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants toiling in the trades.

Homegrown apprentices like Andrew Eade, then, are pure gold.

"Talented people are hard to find," says l'Auberge du Pommier executive chef Jason Bangerter, who sees a little of his younger self in the cheerful, meticulous apprentice (who appeared for his job interview wearing a suit and bearing homemade truffles).

"Andrew has done very, very well," he says. "Out of any of the students I've trained, he's impressed me more than anyone."

He also has landed his next apprentice job already at a nearby bar and grill. After that, he may travel to Europe to work in some of the fine restaurants there. Once he earns his papers, he would like to cook in an upscale kitchen like this one.

Which pleases Mr. Bangerter. "I'd like to see him come back here. I don't want to lose someone like this."

Margaret Philp writes on education and child development for The Globe and Mail.

Trading places

For anyone interested in finding out more about the trades, there are many websites loaded with information on everything from training requirements for various occupations to average wages. Here are some examples:

Government of Canada:


The Canadian Apprenticeship Forum: http://www.apprenticetrades.ca

Canadian Career Consortium: http://www.careerccc.org

Skilled Trades: A Career You Can Build On campaign:


Skills/Compétences Canada: http://www.skillscanada.com

Industry Training Authority (B.C.): http://www.itabc.ca

Career Cruising:


Toronto Construction Association: http://www.tcaconnect.com

Halton Industry Education Council: http://www.apprenticesearch.com

Industry Education Council of Hamilton: http://www.skilledtrades.ca

Ontario School Counsellors' Association: http://www.osca.ca/after.htm

Industry Training Authority (B.C.): http://www.itabc.ca

— Margaret Philp



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