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“You should have a trade to fall back on.” My parents always said that, but it made no sense to me.
I grew up in Prince Rupert, B.C. My friends and I finished high school in 2004, at the tail end of the lifeless economy that had hung over our region since we were born. Unemployment grew at the same rate we aged.
It became clear as we moved toward adulthood that nobody in town was hiring anybody to do anything. I had no idea what existed outside of my rainy, jobless island, so when Mom and Dad said to get a trade to fall back on, I didn’t see the advantage. They could have told me to become the Pope: There were just as many openings.
Given that kind of economy, members of Prince Rupert Secondary’s class of 2004 would have to leave town not only to find work, but also to get a better idea of what was out there.
So after graduation, many of my friends travelled around Western Canada seeking lucrative jobs in less-than-desirable places.
I left Prince Rupert, too, and started working as a forest firefighter for the B.C. Ministry of Forests in nearby Smithers. At 20, I was The Man: I was making as much money as my friends, but working less and having more fun on the job. While they slopped around in northern Alberta, I was in a worker’s paradise of meal allowances and helicopter rides.
My buddies and I would talk on the phone, and while they seemed happy enough, their jobs sounded terrible. They were assisting those skilled workers so revered by my parents.
Thanks to my cool summer job and its near-adult wages, I was able to start going to university. I studied political science, and then journalism.
Meanwhile, my friends shouldered the ugly work that Western Canada dishes out as if it were a Depression-era soup kitchen. They worked far from home, buying their lunch at 7-Eleven, sometimes sleeping in their trucks and washing at the public pool.
That was life in the trades – a gritty, exiled existence, something that happened in the oil patch and northern mining camps of this Harper-dystopia despised by my soft university peers.
Falling back on a trade meant going to Fort McMurray and learning how to handle a blowtorch so you could weld pipe and eat chicken Caesar wraps from the corner store for the rest of your life. During my golden age of confidence, I became more and more convinced that those trade jobs weren’t for me.
But then something happened.
Suddenly my friends in trades were talking about promotions and skills training and earning more than $100,000 a year. Some even moved back to Prince Rupert. The economy had picked up and they could get on with adulthood in the same place they had spent their childhood.
In a short time, it went from me helping them out by driving them to Alberta, to them picking me up from school in their company cars.
After finishing university, I returned to firefighting last summer. My earnings, now laughably small when compared with my friends’ salaries, went almost entirely toward paying off student debt.
In the fall I found myself calling everyone I knew who might be able to give me a job. I was willing to work on a construction site, cut seismic test lines in Alberta, drive a rock truck in a mining camp.
And even though the jobs are there, knowing lots about John A. Macdonald doesn’t put my résumé at the top of the pile.
In short, I was looking for the same types of jobs my friends had found after high school.
They were now reaping the rewards for their time in the mud, and I was 18 again.
Just before Christmas, I visited a cousin in Kimberley, B.C. He’s a carpenter and leaves for work early every morning. While he was at work, I filled my days touring around the area, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what he was up to.
He was at a job site, working with his friends in the cold, measuring twice and cutting once, getting the nail gun jammed and swearing at it, then laughing about it with his pals.
He was in Man Land, and I had just been booted out of the bus shelter of postsecondary education.
University wasn’t a waste, but as long as there is an economy that isn’t on life support, we’ll be building things and fixing things.
That is what the skilled trades do, and I still have no idea why I should have had a trade to “fall back on.” I wonder why it wasn’t my first choice.
Aaron Williams lives in Halifax and is looking for the right apprenticeship.
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