Geoff Johnson: Trades program the real deal

When something sounds too good to be true, it often is exactly that — too good to be true.

In a world of misinformation, misleading promises and shameless lies, our kids can hardly be blamed for becoming desensitized by a constant barrage of misleading advertising claims, product recalls and politicians who “struggle with the truth.”

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But once in a while, something comes along that, at first glance seems really too good to be true, but is the real thing.

The Construct Your Future program being offered by the Vancouver Island Construction Association is just such a “real thing.”

Funding for this program is provided by the government of Canada through the Canada-British Columbia Job Fund.

The training program, according to its website, includes 10 weeks of industry training and experience, a weekly stipend for six weeks of interactive training, three weeks of paid work experience and one week of additional job-search support.

In addition, the program provides some industry certificates: First aid level 1, Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System and “qualified operator of power-actuated tools.”

The association then sweetens the offer with a transportation allowance, steel-toe boots and other safety gear, and breakfast and lunch on classroom days. It follows up with direct connection with industry employers.

The cost to participants? Zero.

Too good to be true?

Not according to the eight graduates from the first intake, “almost all of whom are now employed,” again according to the website.

The construction association is well aware of the need for hands-on career-direction opportunities for non-academically oriented high school grads. A critical labour shortage in B.C.’s construction industry is expected to hit 90 per cent of companies within the next 12 months in several trades.

Seventy-five per cent of companies across the province report they can’t find enough qualified workers — this according to the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C. That’s up from 60 per cent of companies who last year complained about a shortage of qualified workers.

At the same time, more than half of B.C.’s contractors are expecting more work than last year, according to an ICBA of B.C. industry survey. The group also expects construction workers’ wages to increase almost 10 per cent over the next two years.

In 2018, 49 per cent of companies expect to handle more work by increasing the number of employees they have, while 11 per cent expect to increase employee hours.

According to ICBA, about 225,000 British Columbians work in construction, and the industry generates about 10 per cent of the province’s GDP.

Notwithstanding all this, trades shortages have gone from bad to worse. Spikes in demand for qualified workers have been especially big in Northern B.C. and on Vancouver Island.

Meanwhile, and despite the best efforts of B.C.’s Industry Training Authority, trades programs in B.C. high schools are struggling. Part of the reason is the capital costs of obtaining and maintaining the kind of increasingly sophisticated trades-related equipment needed.

Computerized engine analyzers, lathes, saws and milling machines are expensive but necessary as students learn about what is being used by the trades in “the real world.”

Another reason continues to be a reluctance on the part of some students and their parents to consider the demanding path to a life in the trades because it is something less than they had hoped for.

In fact, about only 26 per cent to 30 per cent of Grade 12 grads enrol at one of B.C.’s 12 post-secondary institutions bearing the designation “university.” Significantly fewer than that graduate at first attempt.

A third obstacle is the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation requirement that trades people wishing to teach trades courses in the public education system must qualify for a trades certificate, a non-expiring certificate that restricts the holder to teaching in a specific trades area. This creates problems for smaller secondary schools that cannot provide a full-time job teaching a specific trade program.

Teachers who qualify for a trades certificate will have the option of upgrading to a professional certificate by completing specific teacher-training requirements; in other words, go back to school themselves.

As it is, the Industry Training Authority’s youth trades-training program offers funds to eligible schools across the province for the Youth Discover the Trades program, with exposure to local tradespeople as part of regular classroom activities that incorporate trades thinking and skill building that might get kids thinking about career opportunities.

“The message is clear: If you want to work in construction, there’s a job out there for you,” said ICBA CEO Chris Gardner in a recent statement.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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