Trades education evolves for 21st–century students

Labour | Greg Beatty

Back in the day, when students hit grade eight boys would head off to shop class while girls took home economics.

Something similar, absent the gender bias, sort of exists today through a Practical and Applied Arts Program that is mandatory in grades seven to nine.

“It covers things that are technical or experiential, where you’re working with your hands. It could be coding and robotics, anything construction related, even dance and baking,” says Saskatoon Industry Education Council executive director Janet Uchacz-Hart.

But schools often struggle to find qualified teachers, she says.

“It’s at an all-time low, primarily because if you do have those skills as a journeyperson you can make double the money in the industry.”

Recognizing that if schools struggle to deliver quality education in the skilled trades, it could deter students from considering them as a career, a group of Saskatoon business and industry interests came together in 1998 to found the Saskatoon Industry Education Council (SIEC).

SIEC started with two employees and now has 22 staff who administer a range of programs to fill gaps in education and career development in the skilled trades.

To help teachers in the classroom, for instance, SIEC has created a series of apprenticeship kits for different trades that teachers can sign out. The kits include lessons with step-by-step instructions, links to online resources, student learning activities, and evaluation techniques.

Other programs SIEC administers include “Spotlights” where groups of up 108 students visit a major job site where different tradespeople are working.

“They talk to the students about what they do as an electrician, a plumber, a project manager and whatnot. We have nine sectors we work with, and try to show students what the different career paths look like and then how to get there,” says Uchacz-Hart.

SIEC also runs five-to-10 week boot camps which allow students to learn more about specific trades, along with a summer youth internship program.

This summer’s program had 61 students, says Uchacz-Hart.

“Industry pays the students’ wages, so they don’t get a handout to take these young people. They provide a mentorship opportunity, but also an overview of the industry, and what career options are available,” she says.

“They see value because they can test drive or work with a youth and decide whether they would like to offer them a full-time position. In a lot of cases too, youth might be interested in an area, but then they get to actually try it out. Experiential learning is one of the keys to finding someone’s passion. It’s win-win,” she says.

Of the 61 students in the 2023 program, only one ended up being fired. If issues do arise during the apprenticeship, SIEC has job coaches available to work with the employer and student to resolve them.

“If we learn that a student isn’t getting to work on time then the coach will say, ‘Listen, you’re not going to be there much longer if you’re doing that,’” says Uchacz-Hart.

“Sometimes employers don’t have the best opinions of youth, either. They’re always on their phones, they might think. The old school tended to be that you yelled at your workforce. But that doesn’t equate with anyone anymore, really, so we look to mediate between supervisors and students. It goes both ways.”

SIEC is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2023 and the bridge it provides between the skilled trades and schools is critical, Uchacz-Hart says — both to address the industry’s growing labour shortage, and to support students in their chosen career path.

“What we found through COVID is that young people were isolated in their family home. Since restrictions were lifted, we’ve been working on communication skills and what it takes to be in a workforce. We had students who lacked those skills, along with confidence, and had a lot of anxiety. It’s critical to nurture young people so they feel comfortable on a worksite,” she says. ■