The Right Stuff

Canadian youth discovering their calling in the skilled trades

From the start the RBC Convention Centre was humming with activity as the annual Skills Canada National Competition came to life and roared through Winnipeg from May 31st through June 3rd, 2017. The energy was palpable as 550 youth from all regions across Canada prepared to compete in the trades and technologies. These gifted young people were ready to challenge each other in six sectors: construction, information technology, manufacturing, employment, engineering, transportation and service. Industry representatives were on hand to discuss skilled trade and technology opportunities and issues related to their particular industry. Skills Canada, founded in 1989 and based in Ottawa, Ontario, is a national, non-profit organization created to work with educators, employers, labour groups, and governments to promote skilled trade and technology careers for Canadian youth. This organization finds itself in the unique position, through both public and private sector partners, to secure Canada’s future needs for skilled labour. Of equal value is the assistance the program provides that enables Canada’s youth to discover and pursue rewarding careers. A winning formula for all involved!                          

The Skills Canada National Competition provides an opportunity for young Canadians studying a specific trade to compete in their chosen field and hone their own skills as they acquire knowledge from their fellow competitors. Statistics Canada recently reported that 50% of Canada’s GDP relies on the skilled technology and trade sectors. Yet many youth do not have the specific information that would help them make clear decisions about their future careers. The purpose of the competition is to address this issue by raising awareness for attendees and to encourage youth to excel in their chosen trade or technology. Each of the 43 competition projects is designed and judged by a National Technical Committee that is made up of industry experts from across Canada. The Skills Canada National Competition remains the only event of its kind in Canada which brings together students and apprentices in order to demystify over 40 trades and technologies. Students from all over Manitoba were bused or flown in to attend the event as spectators; over 550 competitors from across Canada came to compete for gold, silver and bronze medal placement in their field.

Teachers and guidance counsellors who attend the event and watch these highly skilled students compete often ask how they can successfully match their particular students to a trade or technology in order to begin the journey to compete at this level. What are both the learned and inherent qualities that assure success? Educators across the country would like nothing better than to see their students find the right niche for their future. Interestingly, the qualities that assure success and that will be explored in this article do not vary much from trade to trade. There is no magic formula by which one can predict this level of success, but there are inherent skills to be mined and character qualities to be encouraged. The event provides student visitors with hands-on-experience in over 50 Try-A-Trade® and Technology activities which give each student the opportunity to discover their abilities, and perhaps their passion. The Essential Skills Forum is available for educators, career practitioners, administrators, and parents, which outlines the Essential Skills needed for future success in any workplace setting. These Essential Skills are: numeracy, digital aptitude, document use, reading text, working with others, thinking skills, oral and written communication, and continuous learning.

Having arrived at the event in pursuit of some kind of formula by which educators might gage the suitability of a student for the trades and technologies, I was stopped in my tracks by an interview with John Oates, the President of Skills Canada. John has a long history of promoting careers in the skilled trades and advocating for an increase in training opportunities. Regarding competitors and the inherent qualities they share, John had this to say. “They need both an interest in and a passion for their chosen trade.” He added that “today employers look for strong communication skills, no matter what the field of work is.”

Today’s jobs increasingly need employees that can master the complicated technologies so they can solve problems as they come up. “Employers are looking for students that are strong in academics.” The trades are simultaneously seeking apprentices with strong kinesthetic aptitudes. “Traditionally the weak students were funneled into the trades, but that no longer applies to the present job site realities,” explained John. Soft skills such as leadership, flexibility, critical thinking, and conflict resolution are also in high demand. The demand for skilled workers is already great, and this demand will peak between 2020 and 2025 as the older labour force retires.

John recommended that guidance counsellors and other educators make contact with their provincial Skills Canada office for further information, and that they consider an in-service covering the many alternative career opportunities available to their students. He emphasized that knowledge of the many paths open to students would prove invaluable to them. One possibility that might initially be explored: a Skills Canada presentation at the secondary school level to inform students about the many training opportunities and apprenticeships available. Further information about these presentations can be accessed at: skillscanada.com

At the 2016 Skills Canada National Competition in Moncton, New Brunswick, the Essential Skills Youth Forum participants, which included several Skills/Compétences Canada (SCC) alumni from across Canada, came together to discuss Skills/Compétences Canada programming. Following their discussions, they recommended the creation of a national alumni program. The idea was partly in recognition of Canada’s 150th birthday. Skills Canada, in partnership with its Member Organizations, selected approximately 40 Alumni ‘Champions’ who had previously participated in provincial/territorial, national, and is some cases international activities or events. In short they act as ambassadors for the program. Skills Canada communications staff recommended that four alumni be interviewed, each representing their chosen sectors: technology, service, manufacturing, and construction. Communications Content Specialist Michele Rogerson kindly set up the interviews with the appropriate alumni.

Aimee Yurris is a prime example how one initial choice combined with the right guidance and paired with creativity, intelligence, and ambition can open unimagined vistas for a student. Aimee is from Yellowknife, NWT. While in high school she serendipitously filled an open spot on her schedule by taking the Foods Program. “It was a random choice, but I found that I loved the baking module.” She then joined an after school baking club which offered her the opportunity to compete in Skills Canada. She won the silver medal in the Northwest Territories Skills in grade 9. At this point it occurred to her that, “this might be something I would like to do forever.” The following year she participated in the Baking Club again, and won the gold medal at the Northwest Territories’ competition. She baked a lemon meringue pie, a vanilla sponge cake, and cream puffs. By now she was hooked.

Aimee received a lot of encouragement from her mom and Arnold Krause, her guidance counsellor. She was always strong academically and graduated from John Franklin High School in Yellowknife. Her next step was to study Culinary Arts at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) where she graduated in 2016. Aimee is now at the University of Lethbridge studying Public and Aboriginal Health. She hopes to return to the North to work in the community. Her take on success? “It takes courage, passion, practice, and more practice”. Aimee has all three of these qualities in spades.

Leanne Bentley, the baking instructor at the competition, was asked what learned or inherent qualities were needed to succeed in the field. She didn’t hesitate when she listed the following: practice, passion for the subject, organization skills, artistic ability, and talent. She added that her successful students are kinaesthetically able, have a good attitude, and are consistently aware of safety issues in the kitchen. Like John Oates, Leanne emphasized the importance of all the soft skills, especially good communication skills.

Ian Cook, another Skills Canada Alumni who is a journeyman in sheet metal, brings passion, creativity, and skill to his chosen profession. He chose the field because of the diversity of opportunities open to him. Sheet metal workers design, fabricate, assemble, install and repair sheet metal. He began taking part in the local skilled trades’ competitions in high school. He enjoys drawing, sketching, and building his own creations such as a small covered wagon made of copper, which was on display at the event. Ian is from a farming background in Alberta. He has been doing sheet metal since he was 12 and was planning to be an architect.

In high school he met Andrew Krul, the off campus coordinator for the Registered Apprentice Program. Krul pushed him to engage in a career and Ian’s skills have increased tenfold through the program. He has acquired welding skills, learned about controls, and basic fabrication. Ian believes that everyone has a different perspective, and it’s those differences that engage people and help them learn. The sheet metal instructor at the competition was firm in his assessment of what his apprentices needed to succeed: aptitude, passion, a good work ethic, and commitment. In his experience 15 to 18 percent of his students drop out of the program in their first year. In order to become a journeyman the apprentices need to take the final exam. Ian is excited about the future and enjoys working at Whisper Heating, a small company poised to grow.

Anastasia Cook drifted in high school until a teacher who had noticed her passion for drawing and computers introduced her to a drawing tablet. Also known as a graphics tablet it is a hardware input device used primarily by digital artists. They have a hard plastic, touch-sensitive drawing surface that transfers stylus movements to a monitor. Anastasia was thrilled. She spent all her lunches and free time practicing on it. She learned to be adept at building and moving 2D and 3D animation from a flat image. She is graduating in August of 2017 from daVinci College in Halifax and will pursue a career in animation.

Anastasia explained that her creative skills could take her into the gaming industry, the military, advertising, or photo manipulation. She gained her confidence from the two years she spent competing in Skills Canada. She won gold provincially and in Toronto she won bronze in her category. “Competitions are stressful but you can’t stop pushing because the result is pride and relief. I try and forge a path for young women in the field. I engage with them online.” She credits her teacher, boyfriend, and community for all their support. Anastacia plans to open her own studio and create new gaming titles. The odds are she will.

Jason Harnum will always be ahead of the pack. Bright, intense, and wise beyond his years, he strode confidently into the room for his interview. Jason is 24 years old and from Conception Bay South, Newfoundland. He is presently a Heavy Equipment Mechanic apprentice and dreams of someday being a fleet maintenance supervisor, a shop lead hand or instructor. His passion is and always was learning. A teacher, Greg Ryan, introduced him to Skills Canada when he was attending the College of the North Atlantic. His interest and ability to handle machine repairs started young. His family fished and he enjoyed fixing boat engines with his father. Jason is particularly proud of building his own boat from scratch. After high school Jason studied four years at the Marine Institute in St. John’s where he graduated with top marks.

He explained the qualities needed to succeed in his line of work: “You must have an excellent work ethic, be skilled in technology as it has become a huge part of servicing heavy equipment, cultivate a constant awareness safety issues, and have the ability to focus and endure a high pressure internship.” In order to compete at the in Heavy Equipment Maintenance contest area one has to be in an apprenticeship program. Jason’s apprenticeship requires two months of schooling followed by six months on the job. This block of training is repeated six times and takes four years to complete. Jason is now in his fifth block. His advice? “Remain humble, never be afraid to learn something new, and try fresh ways of doing things.” My hunch is that this young man will achieve both his goals and his dreams. Rather than discovering a ready formula by which to fit a particular skill set to a specific trade or technology, what became clear through the interviews was the importance of each student discovering his or her ability and passion. These stories also reveal the importance of caring adults to guide and encourage students in discovering their particular vocation. Skills Canada has proved invaluable to each one of these successful students. The young people featured in this article represent but a sampling of all the students who yearly compete to be their best. Canada would be a poorer nation had Skills Canada not created such meaningful opportunities for youth and for their future.

By: Alison Zenisek

All photos Courtesy of Skills Compétences Canada