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Eager student hooked on welding gets a head start on skilled trade

Mark Hoenen has taken a proactive approach to dealing with the region’s trades shortage.
Owner Mark Hoenen, left, and Riley Gains at the Metal Supermarket.

Mark Hoenen has taken a proactive approach to dealing with the region’s trades shortage.

The owner of Metal Supermarkets in Keating Industrial Park, who understands only too well the scarcity of new recruits to the skilled trades, has decided to hook them when they’re young.

That’s how he managed to get 15-year-old Riley Gains on his payroll.

Hoenen said Gains had been coming into his shop for years, at first with his dad and then on his own to pick up bits and pieces for small projects he was working on.

“I told him when he was old enough to come back and I’d give him a job,” Hoenen said, noting the kid promptly took him up on the offer.

Gains has been working at the store now for a year and a half, though the Claremont Secondary student doesn’t seem to consider what he does “work.”

Gains said he was hooked on welding from the first day he took a high school welding class.

“I really loved it,” he said. Gains said he was soon tackling his own projects and small projects for others.

The projects are what led him to make regular appearances at Metal Supermarkets, and Hoenen saw a kid who was keen on learning. “I figured I can teach him the metals and it gives him a big jump ahead in the game. And it’s good for me — I get a young kid who wants to learn and wants to be a welder,” he said.

Hoenen says these days, it’s tough to get anyone interested in the trades, and very difficult to attract kids to the sector, given the lure of university, the professions and the high-tech world.

“And so many of my customers are screaming for guys,” he said.

Metal Supermarkets caters to everyone from the person who dabbles in weekend projects to inventors manufacturing prototypes, interior designers and the industrial builders at the shipyards.

“The company is the largest micro-distributor of metal in the world,” he said, noting they have made their name selling small quantities, odd cuts and full lengths of aluminum, brass, copper and steel.

“We can sell you anything from a piece for a bracket on your fence to the material for your house,” he said.

“And we’re a one-stop shop.”

The shop will cut to size whatever a customer wants and will even do some value-added work such as punching holes or shearing pieces of metal.

Hoenen has been casting around for people to hire, and while he does interviews, often people just don’t show up.

For his part, Gains gets a weekend job during the school year — full-time in the summer — working in the field he loves, work experience that gives him high school credit and a few dollars to spend.

Gains said the work and his welding have given him a good head start on his career — he intends to take the welding course at Camosun College, try underwater welding and build his own shop.

He knows it’s a good job that will pay well, and while it’s not a topic of conversation among his friends, they are aware of the opportunities presented by a looming labour shortage that will have an impact on all sectors.

According to the B.C. Construction Association, only one in 45 high school grads currently enters construction trades programs after graduation.

And despite the fact that the average annual wage of a construction worker in B.C. is more than $61,000, there are an estimated 8,000 positions that will be unfilled due to the labour shortage by 2028.

The American Welding Society predicts there will be a shortage of more than 450,000 skilled welding professionals by 2022. That demand translates into job security, increased pay and no student loan debt, according to the society.

Lisa Stevens, chief operating officer at the B.C. Construction Association, said getting youth to consider a career in the trades often runs up against the bias toward academics found at schools and in their homes. “High school is difficult, it’s an academic setting and there’s a predisposition to want to send our youth into a post-secondary academic pathway, and we like to make them choose one or the other,” she said, noting often the trades are seen as a consolation prize.

Stevens, who has teenagers, said she’s seen glimmers of hope in young people today being more open-minded about their career choices. She believes they might be more willing to consider the trades than the previous generation.

The trouble is, she said, the parents and teachers are sometimes rooted in old-world thinking, that university is the only way to go.

Gains is not the first student Hoenen has had through his shop doors. The 6,000-square-foot space has seen a handful over the years, as Hoenen has always seen the value in bringing young people into the business, especially since labour is hard to find.

Hoenen says they employ five people in Victoria and three at their store in Nanaimo, but have had trouble adding to the ranks, despite trying everything from social media to recruiters to find people.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in 20 years,” he said.

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