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The Apathy Gap in the Skilled Trades

As I walked into this latest event, I could tell this was going to be a different experience from last time: circular tables, the room lined with people, and at each table, a skilled trades representative from different trades departments within my institution. I was soon to embark on a one-hour whirlwind of elevator pitches to high school counsellors and coordinators about why the skilled trades is a viable option for post-secondary education.

Post by Tim Carson, open education advisor, trades representative at BCcampus

In that hour, during which I had time to briefly explain why I chose the trades and what that choice meant for me, I came to the realization that, although the skilled trades have historically been considered a consolation prize for some in the K–12 system, others just simply do not know what they do not know. Hence, the term “apathy gap.”

To be fair, the term “apathy” can bring a negative connotation to the conversation. After all, if you do not really care about a situation or topic, one may deduce that you are simply being apathetic. Merriam-Webster defines apathy as either “lack of feeling or emotion” or “lack of interest or concern.”

Could it really be true that people have a lack of feeling, interest, or concern about the skilled trades? Possibly. Over the last several decades, we have seen significant growth within the post-secondary education sector as more and more high school graduates are looking to college and university as the gateway to their goals. I believe the lack of concern for the trades is a mixture of false information and a lack of information overall.

One Simple Thing Can Change Everything

I remember one conversation I had with a high school shop teacher whose class was in danger of being cancelled because of a lack of enrolment. He told me that, in one last-ditch effort to boost enrolment before the class was cancelled, he made a change. The change had a sweeping effect, and he reported that the students had a great experience. His solution seems too simple to have worked, yet it proved the point that some just do not know what they do not know.

The solution? He changed the title of the class to include the word “engineering.” Within a week, the class was at capacity. He made the change three years ago, and the class has been full every semester since.

During the event at which I shared my elevator pitch with those counsellors, one comment became the theme of the event for me: “I can’t believe we haven’t heard of this before. Our students need to know this is an option for them.”

The Same Three Questions

Not unlike other professions, questions arise regarding my experience within the skilled trades. In my experience, most, if not all, these questions essentially can be reduced to three common concerns.

How long does it take to graduate?

Each apprenticeship is different in its duration, but the common length of an apprenticeship in Canada is four years. Some are shorter, and given some different contexts, a few are longer. Usually, the one asking this question is already comparing what I have said to the length of a university or college experience.

What can I expect to make as a tradesperson?

Again, this is contextual. One source listed the median wage for plumbers to be in the neighbourhood of $70,000 per year. Often, people are shocked out of their apathy when they hear these numbers. They are also surprised to hear that this is a low number for journeypeople. In many cases, tradespeople can command a higher wage, due in part to their individual expertise, but also in part to the shortage of skilled tradespeople across the country. A recent article quoted the Ontario Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development as saying, “Ontario is facing a looming problem. Our skilled tradespeople are retiring faster than we can replace them.”

The Vancouver Regional Construction Association recently reported that, “Based on historical trends, we can anticipate that 4,900 new workers under the age of 30 will enter the Lower Mainland industry [over the next two years], leaving a shortfall of nearly 7,300 workers by late 2021. The shortfall is forecast to be nearly 17,500 workers by 2029.”

How hard is the work?

Make no mistake, the skilled trades require hard work and dedication. Roughly four years of on-the-job training combined with four cycles of technical training where 70 per cent is the passing grade can be daunting for many. Many of the skilled trades require some form of physical work, often times exposing oneself to environmental elements all year round.

What can be done?

Quite simply, I believe one of the biggest impacts on the system would be to advocate more openly and courageously for the skilled trades. Trades should not be considered a consolation prize for those “deemed” unable to enter the university or college pathways.

A shift in mindset will make all the difference in the world. Not everyone I talk with wants to become a tradesperson, and yet not everyone I talk with wants to pursue university or college as their pathway to success.

Contextual? Perhaps. Yet the potential of earning a decent wage while you are learning valuable and transferrable skills cannot be overlooked.

The skilled trades are not for all. But for those who choose them, they can constitute a very rewarding and fulfilling career path. The growth trajectories are almost limitless.

The Story Continues…

Not everyone came back to shake my hand at the end of the event, but those who did remarked upon the very things I have shared in this piece. Over the following months, I received emails and phone calls from students looking into the potential of a trades education. Some of those high school students went on to become graduates of my program. They are supporting themselves and their families because of a change in their own apathy gap.

The skilled trades are not for everyone: it takes courage and discipline to become a tradesperson. Although the trades can make for a hard life, it is also a rewarding life. People should know there is another option besides university or college and should be given the information to help make an informed decision. More students need to hear an earnest trades elevator pitch so we can move toward reducing the apathy gap.

On Mondays throughout November 2020, BCcampus is hosting the Trades and Vocational Education Summit Series. This free summit series is designed to provide vocational education faculty opportunities to explore different avenues for their course design and delivery. Learn more.

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