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Learn While You Earn

From apprenticeship to Red Seal

The Plumber’s Story

When plumbing apprentice Dan White was asked to speak at the First Nations, Metis, Inuit (FNMI) Student Conference, he wanted to communicate the wisdom of choosing a career in the trades. White appeared via video from his union’s headquarters and told the students tuning in, “Basically, when you do a trade, you are paid to learn – unlike going to university or college, where you pay to learn and, upon completion, there is no guarantee of a job. When you do a skilled trade, you have a career, you have a future.” White also pointed out that plumbing is a Red Seal trade – something that denotes expertise in the field and is a status that is recognized across Canada.

Dan White found his trade in a fairly typical manner. After working for a few years in the film industry, he yearned for a career that both paid well and allowed him to spend more time with his family. He did his research and discovered that plumbing fit the bill. Now, in the third year of his apprenticeship, White says that his favourite part of the job is working with water. “We pipe water to hospitals, cities and homes. We bring the essence of life to the people. For me, that is pretty awesome, especially being Indigenous.” This is the kind of job satisfaction that Guidance Counsellors would like to see for all of their students. 

While White enjoyed his work in the film industry, he acknowledges that students seeking financial security would do well to start the process of finding a trade early. This is where guidance counsellors come in. Every province has created incentives for students to pursue careers in the skilled trades. These range from credit bearing courses, cooperative education, paid work experience and college partnership skills training. If a student wants to be a welder, an electrician, a cook or a hairstylist, they can get a leg up on others while they are still in high school. And, while their contemporaries earn a college diploma or university degree, they can earn a living while learning their trade and emerge debt free with a career that could serve them for a lifetime. 

The road to the Red Seal

Let’s take a quick look at the path to becoming a Red Seal tradesperson. Guidance counsellors can share this checklist with students to help them find their way:

The Road to Earning Your Red Seal:
A Guide for Students 

Get a head start in high school. Find out the incentives given to high school students to enroll in programs that allow them to pursue a career in the trades (more on that to follow). These are often referred to as
pre-apprenticeship opportunities/programs.

Start the apprenticeship in high school. An apprenticeship is an “earn while you learn” situation where the apprentice works for an employer who teaches them the main ideas/techniques/skills governing their industry. In most cases, the student/apprentice will have to find a sponsor employer who will take them on for the on-the-job portion of process. The in-class portion of their training occurs at trades schools, union halls or colleges for a nominal cost to the apprentice. If an apprentice needs a little financial help, there are loans and grants they can apply for. These include the Canada Apprentice Loan of up to $4,0001 for Red Seal trades and the Apprenticeship Incentive Grant of up to $2,000 over the course of their apprenticeship2.  

Become a journeyperson. Over the course of three to five years (depending on the trade), the apprentice will accumulate hours and take part in training that will eventually demonstrate their expertise in the field they have chosen. To become a journeyperson, they will demonstrate to their provinces skilled trade governing body that they have completed their training and pass a certification exam with a minimum mark of 70%. If they become a journeyperson in one of the over 50 Red Seal trades, they can apply for the Apprenticeship Completion Grant worth $2,0003.

Earn the Red Seal.  By the time the one-time high school student gets to this step, most of the work is done. That doesn’t mean that earning their Red Seal will be easy – in fact, many journeypersons make unsuccessful attempts to earn this credential. To get their Red Seal they need to meet the qualifications established for their trade in their province and then write the Red Seal exam. The exam consists of 100 to 150 multiple-choice questions that demonstrate their knowledge and expertise in the trade. Red Seal status is a national standard recognized across Canada that denotes their ability to complete the rigors of trade training and demonstrate mastery in their field.

How to get a head start

If Dan White could do it all over again, he now knows he could have jumped into his trade while he was still in high school. Most provinces have incentive programs that allow high school students (aged 16+) to pursue a career in the trades and position themselves to be active members of the workforce right after they graduate high school. Here’s a snapshot of how it works: 

In British Columbia, the Industry Training Authority (ITA) encourages students to learn about the trades in elementary school. In high school, students can get a head start on their apprenticeship through the ITA Youth Training Program. 

In Alberta, the Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) allows students to earn hours on the job toward their apprenticeship and credits toward their high school diploma.

The Saskatchewan Youth Apprenticeship (SYA) Program allows students to take their Level 1 apprenticeship courses for free and earn 300 hours of trades training – a major head start in the apprenticeship process. 

In Manitoba, the High School Apprenticeship Program (HSAP) combines high school education with PAID on the job work. Manitoba also has the Youth Build pre-apprenticeship program where students learn to build homes under the guidance of a supervisor as an alternative to attending school. They also get paid for the work they do as long as they complete a weekly academic component. 

The Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) allows students to earn high school credits while working in apprenticeship trades. In some cases, the hours they work count toward their tally on the way to becoming a journey person. 

Quebec has a comprehensive vocation-training program that runs as part of an extensive apprenticeship system. 

The New Brunswick Teen Apprenticeship Program (NBTAP) allows students to take part in a three-year pre-apprenticeship program starting in Grade 10. 

Prince Edward Island allows grade 12 students to dedicate part of their school year to earning up to 110 hours per designated course toward their apprenticeship in the Accelerated Secondary Youth Apprenticeship Program (ASAP)

Nova Scotia’s WorkIt Youth Apprenticeship Program is designed to allow students to find a trade in an effort to meet projected shortfalls in the skilled trade workforce. 

The Northwest Territories and Yukon both have generous apprenticeship programs that allow students to work toward their apprenticeship goals while attending high school. 

In other words, every student in Canada is – to at least some degree – positioned to get a head start on the path to his or her Red Seal certification. For guidance counsellors, the biggest challenge will be to steer students toward the skilled trades given the overwhelming push toward post-secondary schooling by parents. However, the data is clear: 

The skilled trades are rife with opportunities as the aging workforce retires. 

Skilled trade apprentices can graduate with no debt (vs. thousands of dollars of debt for college and university grads).

The “earn while you learn” approach puts students in a position to be earn a lot of money by the time they attain journeyperson status (around the same time that their peers finish their college and university programs).

Over 50 apprenticeship trades can lead to the nationally recognized Red Seal certification that allows the tradesperson to have their abilities honoured right across Canada. 

While Dan White’s road is both valuable and admirable, today’s students could get a head start on their career with the right advice and a bit of determination. Canada is actively seeking and providing incentives for skilled tradespeople. Maybe it’s time for our students to capitalize on these opportunities. 

1 https://www.pca-cal.ca/en/Home
2 https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/funding/apprenticeship-incentive-overview.html
3 https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/services/funding/apprenticeship-completion-overview.html

Careers in Trades – https://careersintrades.ca/whats-an-apprenticeship/youth-apprenticeship-programs/.
Prism Economics and Analysis. (May 2019). “Apprentice Demand in the Top Ten Red Seal Trades.” Canadian Apprenticeship Forum. Retrieved from: 
Red Seal Program – Canada – http://www.red-seal.ca.html
Dan White’s story: Gismondi, Angela. (June 8, 2020). “Plumbing apprentice shares journey at virtual First Nations conference.” Daily Commercial News. Retrieved from: