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Not only are careers in today's skilled trades financially rewarding, they are complex and involve the use of sophisticated technology. Many also offer paths to entrepreneurship.

Now is definitely the time for Canadians, whether they are young people graduating from high school or mid-lifers contemplating a career change, to consider skilled trades, says Don Lovisa, the president of Durham College in Oshawa.

"It's amazing – we have companies coming from as far away as Alberta and scooping up everyone they can get their hands on, including graduates from a range of fields including electrical, welding, rigging, hoisting and crane operation," he explains. "There are lots of companies looking for precision machinists, but enrolment is very low."

Unfortunately, Mr. Lovisa points out, too many young people still don't appreciate the opportunities and benefits derived from the acquisition of a skilled trade. "It's hard to get young people, and especially their parents, to understand that these jobs offer security, good pay, and in many cases, very good benefits," he says.

He adds that a lot of potential students have a basic misunderstanding of just what a skilled trade is. "I like to say that it's not the kind of job your grandfather had. Skilled trades today can be very complex and involve a lot of technology."

Durham College skilled trades students are learning about 3-D printing, for example. Others are spending many hours programming machines and robots to perform very complex tasks in highly technical environments.

The rapidly evolving technical needs of the workplace make it imperative that colleges maintain relevance, says Mr. Lovisa. Durham fine-tunes its program offerings by working closely with industry leaders at the local, provincial and national levels. "We have as many as 75 program advisory committees," he notes. "We have industry representatives sitting down with academics and deans twice a year to talk about their needs."

Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, is also striving to address the projected shortfall of skilled trades workers in Canada that could see as many as 1.4 million jobs go begging over the next 15 years.

"We offer a wide range of skilled trades, as well as a scholarships, bursaries and awards designed to increase access and skills development among students," says Loyalist president Maureen Piercy. And the jobs are anything but "men only," she adds. An increasing number of female students are finding both opportunity and acceptance in the classroom as well as in industrial settings.

Ms. Piercy adds that Loyalist, like many colleges, works closely with local industry partners to help graduates find jobs in the region. "For instance, Kellogg's is located here, so we offer programs in food process manufacturing."

Many young people who would like to become skilled trades workers are unsure of their exact area of interest, so to help them decide, Loyalist offers an opportunity to explore a range of disciplines in its state-of-the-art Sustainable Skills, Technology and Life Sciences Centre. The new College Technology and Trade Preparation one-year Ontario College Certificate Program allows students to sample a wide range of trades – including automation, construction renovation, manufacturing engineering, motive power fundamentals, mechanical techniques and welding – earning credits that can be applied to a future program of their choice.

Loyalist is also making it easier for students to participate in the economy through a new program funded by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. The W. Garfield Weston Fellowship Program offers tuition and bursary incentives to encourage individuals to consider programs leading to careers in the skilled trades. Students and apprentices who maintain a minimum 70 per cent average can achieve up to $4,000 in bursaries over the course of their studies.

The college also has a strong commitment to attracting Aboriginal students – who make up a significant proportion of Loyalist's full-time population – and offers a 16-week Aboriginal Construction Renovation Program. Beginning in February, unemployed or underemployed Aboriginal students will be introduced to construction renovation through work visits to projects in the field, hands-on projects and skills development in the classroom.

But the biggest job, Mr. Lovisa makes clear, is simply encouraging more Canadians to take an interest in the skilled trades as a career. "As a society, we have some educating to do. Colleges offer many opportunities for people in skilled trades, including the opportunity of getting into the job market a lot faster – and with less investment in terms of both money and time."

ACCC is the national and international voice of Canada's publicly funded colleges, institutes and polytechnics, working with industry and social sectors to train 1.5 million learners of all ages and backgrounds at campuses serving over 3,000 urban, rural and remote communities across the country and in 29 countries around the world.

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