Keith Brodt was teaching his regular shop class on a Friday morning in December, the room loud with the buzz of machines and the energy of 14-year-old boys – 29 of them. But when he heard his name being called, the urgent tone cut through all the noise.
“I looked up and saw Brody, he had one hand covering his other hand, blood dripping down his elbow.”
The youth, Brody Hormes, had just sliced off three fingers on the rotating blades of a jointer.
In the Throne Speech this week, the B.C. government promised to “re-engineer” the education system to get more people into trades training. First, it will have to grapple with overcrowded, underfunded high school shops that provide students with their first taste of the industry that is expected to drive B.C.’s economy in the next six years.
Shirley Bond is the skills-training minister for British Columbia, and she laments that so few parents want to steer their children toward a trades career. “The culture, it is discouraging at times,” she said in an interview this week.
A collision is looming as the province looks for ways to drive the education system to shift gears, directing more resources into trades training. “We need to take the available resources we have and align those funding dollars to meet the labour market demands the province is facing,” Ms. Bond said.
But even as it redirects tens of millions of dollars to its preferred education programs, high school shops are left begging for private-sector donations of equipment to replace decades-old tools.
For the past two years, Mr. Brodt has carried the weight of responsibility for Brody’s injuries. But there is a lesson the Penticton teacher hopes to share with the decision-makers in Victoria – that a real investment in shops like his is needed to safely bring along the next generation of tradespeople.
“That accident could be prevented if I was standing there next to Brody. I can’t stand there next to 29 kids. When you have that many in the room you are not teaching, you are managing,” he said in an interview. “And you get to a certain number, it’s not in your control any more. There are too many bodies, too many pieces of equipment. It’s incredibly difficult.”
Barring some dramatic change, it is not likely to get easier. The B.C. government and the teachers’ union are locked in a battle over class sizes and other working conditions. Meanwhile, the pressure is on to direct more students into classrooms like Mr. Brodt’s.
This year there are more than 40,000 B.C. secondary students in school-based applied skills training, and more than 35,000 registered apprentices at the postsecondary level. But that is not enough: The province expects more than 400,000 skilled trade jobs to open up by 2020, in part because of an expected boom in the resource sector with new mines, pipelines, liquefied natural gas plants and other megaprojects in the planning stages.
If a large number of construction projects are set to start in 2016 and run through until the end of the decade, the young workers who will staff those sites need to have begun training last year, or enter classes soon. The province’s next generation of skilled workers is required to take courses that last up to four years and entail 1,600 hours of work annually.
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building Trades Council, said many apprentices struggle to find enough work to fill the hours because until they finish their training, apprentices aren’t certified to work on large sites.
Although 2.7 million construction workers are unionized across North America, the apprentices that will make up the core of that work force can’t find enough work right now to be trained properly.
“If we have one company who commits [to building an LNG plant], we can crew that job. If we have two, that’ll be a challenge. If we have three, that’ll be an exponentially bigger challenge,” Mr. Sigurdson said.
He said there’s an easy solution: All levels of government in Canada should require contractors to employ apprentices on work sites, something the federal government is considering.
The B.C. Liberal government first announced its skills-training plan in the fall of 2012 and it included a $75-million boost for trades training. But the overall budget for advanced education was cut and is set to shrink each year for four years, signalling a shift in priorities.
This week, the government promised to step up efforts to ensure British Columbians are first in line for the new jobs it anticipates will open up. But Education Minister Peter Fassbender isn’t expecting a boost when the budget comes down on Tuesday.
“We can’t afford to equip every school in the province with the latest equipment,” he said in an interview. The B.C. Construction Association launched a fundraising campaign this week to supply high school shops with needed tools and equipment – the wish list is worth almost $9-million.
Mr. Fassbender said that kind of private sector support is a “fantastic” solution. But there is another alternative, a co-op model for workshops that are springing up in communities from Cranbrook to Nanaimo. Members share tools, equipment and knowledge as part of an international “hacker space” movement.
In Victoria, Makerspace offers members everything from a bio lab to a forge – it’s a shop teacher’s dream space. The workshop, located in the Vancouver Island Technology Park, has amassed equipment mostly through donations and industrial hand-me-downs. A member can design an object on a computer, create a mould using a 3-D printer and then cast the project in metal.
Zachary Sousa came in with his mother last April to check out a hobby electronics class. He’s since mastered the use of Arduino microcontrollers and is now offering his own workshops. He’s also building his own 3-D printer using laser-cut wood. He is 12 years old.
He has revelled in the opportunity to learn new skills and access computer-controlled machines. But there are resources here that a traditional shop class just couldn’t provide, no matter how well-equipped it was. “If I have a question, someone there will always be able to answer it because they all have different professions and they are always there to help,” he said.
The B.C. government is forecasting one million job openings in the next decade. Nearly half of those jobs will require workers with the skills first learned in shop classes and hacker spaces.
Even if Mr. Brodt’s classroom is provided with the resources he’s looking for, a training bottleneck remains.
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