Skip to main content

Referring to trades as a ‘second choice’ career option underestimates the complex skills required and underrates the career paths open to trades workers.

After 12 years as a stay-at-home mom, Andrea Paton was on the lookout for a new career. While her previous experience had been in the catering business, a long-standing family occupation, home do-it-yourself projects had sparked an interest in carpentry. Rather than enroll in university for a general degree and a potentially uncertain future, she decided to try an apprenticeship.

"It seemed like a logical step because you work for 10 months and then are in school for two, so you're 'earning while you're learning,'" Ms. Paton said.

After four years of carpentry training at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, and an apprenticeship with building and construction management firm Clark Builders in Edmonton, Ms. Paton is now a certified journey person – which means she's met the industry standard set by her trade and can earn full wages. Along the way, a new family tradition was born: Her teenaged son is now a carpentry apprentice.

Trades have been maligned as a "second choice" career option for those not academically inclined. Yet that underestimates the complex skills required in the skilled trades and underrates the career paths open to trades workers.

With a recent Workopolis job trends report showing 5-per-cent growth in skilled trades between July, 2012, and 2013, and trade income averaging about $60,000 according to another study, learning a trade is worth considering as a first choice rather than a fallback plan.

As for which trade to choose, experts suggest thinking beyond the standard plumber, electrician or carpenter roles, saying that there are more than 200 trades across Canada. Construction, for instance, includes tower crane operators, heavy-duty equipment operators and mechanics.

Selecting the right trade involves marrying your interests with a solid understanding of what's in demand in your region, said Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of Careers in Trades, a joint venture of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum and Skills Canada.

"If they're in an area where the mining industry is strong, look at what trades are needed in mining," she said. But that doesn't limit you to being a driller – you can also consider trades that support that industry.

Although trades are as sensitive to recession as any other field, some offer a wider range of employment options. Kael Campbell, president of the trades recruiting firm Red Seal Recruiting Solutions Ltd. in Victoria, said he often recommends heavy-duty mechanics and industrial electricians to those looking for a trade.

"They're such diversified skill sets. A heavy-duty mechanic works on large off-road equipment but also has the skills to work on diesel engines in highway trucks. Even if there's a slowdown in mining and forestry, most of Canada's goods get onto highway trucks, so it's a very recession-resistant trade," Mr. Campbell said.

Across Canada, the Workopolis report currently lists construction, household appliance installation and repair, vehicle maintenance and repair, electrical, and equipment forklift crane operator as the top five in-demand trades.

Some colleges even offer preapprenticeship programs that allow students to try out different trades.

Ms. Paton sampled a week each of welding, sheet metal, electrical and plumbing through a program called "Women Building Futures" that encourages women to go into trades – women make up only 5 per cent of the skilled trades work force in Canada – before confirming her interest in carpentry.

Some people even find their way into a trade through other work experience. After enrolling in a university-level biochemistry program and finding it was not for him, William Lipscombe worked in construction and carpentry while gardening for clients on the weekend. Realizing he liked landscaping in particular, he enrolled in a diploma program at the University of Guelph that was coupled with a groundskeeping apprenticeship.

After deciding on a trade, the next steps are to find an employer willing to sponsor an apprentice and to register at a college for in-class training. Employers and colleges often have agreements so they can provide students to the industry. Yet another route is to secure an unskilled job with a potential employer, then ask to be put into their apprenticeship track.

During the apprenticeship, a person spends 80 per cent of his or her time working in the field (paid, although at a lower wage until they graduate) and 20 per cent in the classroom learning complementary theoretical knowledge. Once an apprentice puts in their hours and writes licensing exams, they become a journey person. At that point, as in any other occupation, they're in the job market, although some will be hired by the firm where they apprentice.

While Ms. Paton plans to spend the next few years working as a carpenter, she is also thinking longer-term about becoming a project co-ordinator, or taking advantage of NAIT's new offer to credit journey persons' work experience with entrance to the third year of a business administration degree.

Now in the last semester of his landscaping program, Mr. Lipscombe is thinking longer-term too, about specialization in grape growing and wine making.

Ms. Watts-Rynard said that, given all the hard work and skills involved, it is difficult to hear to trades referred to as a secondary option.

"Trades aren't a last-chance career option because you have nothing better to do; it's a good first choice for everyone to consider."

Interact with The Globe