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Training the next generation of tradespeople

While other boys were playing hockey or indoor soccer on a recent Saturday, Quinn and Eric Daigle were testing their construction skills against more than 150 Ontario high school students.

The 16-year-old twins spent six hours in a high-school hallway MacGyvering a complicated model roadway out of cardboard and duct tape. Next they jury-rigged a faux water filtration system. Lastly, they made a live pitch for an infrastructure policy change. It paid off. The boys and their teammates tied for first place and are headed to the North American "Construction Challenge" finals in Las Vegas in March.

"They were ridiculously revved," says the boys' mother, Jennifer, who drove the whole team home. "They talked more than girls. Five guys in the car talking at 90 miles an hour."

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Yes, these are the kids who take "shop." As part of a push by educators and government to counter the projected shortage of skilled labour in the next few years, new programs are being developed and classrooms are being fitted with the latest computerized equipment and architectural and engineering software. Students ponder big questions about crumbling transportation and water infrastructure or design buildings from top to bottom.

For parents willing to adjust their university-or-bust attitude, a trades education for their son or daughter can be a refreshing choice that's anything but the slacker stream.

"You used to have a stigma for kids who went into the tech side of things," says Ms. Daigle, who works in insurance. "But it's not that way at all. These boys take advanced math and sciences. It's not easy."

But it can be fun. Former Ontario Hydro project manager Joe Saponara started teaching new construction classes at Toronto's St. Patrick Catholic Secondary School this past fall - the school's team nabbed a top-three finish at the Construction Challenge. A recent focus has been building Rube Goldberg machines, those magical devices that make simple things happen, but in a chain-reaction fashion.

"It really engages the kids, makes them think of a different type of career ahead of them," he says. (They also post their project on YouTube.)

It hasn't been an easy sell, though. The school recently took the word "construction" out of the name. Mr. Saponara is trying to reach parents of eighth graders to interest them in his program as early as Grade 9. His work is paying off; enrolment is set to triple next year.

"Parents in Grade 8 all feel that their kids are going to be doctors and lawyers," he says. "They soon realize after a couple years in high school, 'My son or daughter may not make it.' There are some good alternatives, but they may start a little too late."

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Once he's got them there, he piques students' interest by putting a price tag on various jobs. When teaching them how to wire a two-way electrical switch (say, an upstairs and downstairs switch on stairs) he'll point out that the gig would gross $150 for half an hour.

Many educators say they routinely mention that with a bit of experience, a journeyperson (formerly journeyman) wage of $30 or $35 an hour isn't uncommon after four years of work experience. Indeed, postsecondary schools such as the British Columbia Institute of Technology, list starting wages and placement statistics for its programs on its website.

That school also operates a number of dual programs with high schools, which sets students up with credentials to get them started in the trades after graduation. "We're seeing huge interest in those programs," says Pat Matthieu, director of enrolment planning. "There are more open discussions around, not just becoming a doctor or lawyer or nurse."

"In the electrical trades we see a lot of people coming back from university to the trades because they want instant feedback and results," says Don Zaklan, who teaches a college-credit BCIT high-school course in the Surrey School District.

Industry experts say that the trades need that brainpower. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the construction trades have lost a lot of talent to Silicon Valley and the information technology field, says David Bannister, the work force development manager for the Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which held the Construction Challenge.

Hence, the push to illustrate how much the trades have evolved to attract more Quinns and Erics.

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"The days of carrying an oily rag in your back pocket and swinging a wrench all day, those days are kind of gone," Mr. Bannister says. "Granted, we'll always need labourers on construction sites, but what our industry really needs is a creative, dynamic work force that really can come up with new ideas and do problem solving and think on their feet."

And all this can come without incurring the student loans associated with university. Starting in high school, students can find paid co-ops and apprenticeship programs. The Canadian government has also introduced the Apprentice Incentive Grant, which offers up to $4,000 to pay for tuition, travel, tools and expenses for training in various trades after high school.

Mr. Zaklan has become well known in the past 12 years for one of his now-annual projects: Under his guidance, his students spend two weeks running five-storeys of Christmas lights on the facade of St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver.

"These programs have raised the profile of the trades in high school," he says. "Stories get back about kids graduating and getting work and being happy."

But for many parents, wages and career prospects aren't the driving force behind seeking out trades classes for their children.

For Carlos Castano, a waiter in Toronto, it was about finding the right fit for his son Simone, one of Mr. Saponara's students.

"He's a very enthusiastic kid, he's really good with technology," he says. "He's a craftsman by nature - and he has an engineer's soul."

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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