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Steamfitter Kayla Baily shows student Richard Villavicenceo how to solder a joint to a pipe at the Future Building career fair in Toronto.MATTHEW SHERWOOD/The Globe and Mail

As painful as it is to admit, your high school guidance counsellor was probably right. You didn't need to go to university or college. Instead, you needed to look at the labour market, pick a skilled trade and get started as an apprentice.

Over the next decade, nearly one in five of Ontario's new jobs are expected to be in the trades. And as a generation of young workers pursue college or university degrees, the province will be short 100,000 construction apprentices over the next 10 years, said Sean Strickland, chief executive officer of the Ontario Construction Secretariat.

"Young people leave [high] school, they go to college for a year or two, they get a university degree – they kick around – they don't get very meaningful employment," he said. "By the time they turn 27, they're saying, 'You know, I'd really like to have a career and make some decent money.' "

That's when many workers are finding their way back to the trades. Twenty-seven is now the average age for a construction apprentice.

Henry Chow, a 29-year-old apprentice from Toronto, has followed this roundabout route to a career as a steam fitter, a tradesperson who installs and maintains piping systems. After completing a college diploma in automotive technology, he worked at Canadian Tire as an apprentice mechanic before deciding the job wasn't for him.

"I didn't find that to be a good career," he said.

And after a few false starts pursuing other jobs, Mr. Chow is now a fourth-year apprentice and expects to be a journeyman in a couple of years. He's enjoying what he's doing, and couldn't be happier with how things worked out.

Mr. Strickland and the OCS, a joint labour and management organization that represents 25 construction trades as well as their contractor partners, are thrilled to have recruits like Mr. Chow – they just want them a little earlier.

"Construction is also a physically demanding job," Mr. Strickland said. "If you get an apprentice when they're 19, by the time they're 27, they're a journeyperson and that's when they're the most productive."

In order to encourage young people to consider the trades, the OCS hosted Future Building 2015 from April 14 to 16, an interactive three-day event where students, young adults and those looking to change jobs could get a taste of what a career in the trades might be like.

From the most popular trades – think carpenters, plumbers and electricians – to lesser-known ones such as boilermakers (people who make, test and maintain boilers, tanks and vessels) and millwrights (industrial mechanics), the event gave the eager crowd a chance to try skills such as welding, operating heavy machinery and masonry for themselves. More than 10,000 students came through the doors, while Ontario Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn and Minister of Education Liz Sandals also made appearances.

Like the OCS, the Ontario government has been working to encourage more young people to view the trades as a viable career path. Last week, it announced it would pour an additional $55-million into three apprenticeship training programs. Most of those funds will go toward investing in equipment and technology at colleges and other institutions across the province, while $13-million will go toward bolstering the Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program, which helps people considering a career in the trades develop job skills through in-class training and work placements. It targets groups who are underrepresented in the trades, such as at-risk youth, aboriginal people, newcomers and women.

Women in particular are drastically outnumbered on construction sites, comprising about 2 per cent of registered construction apprentices, according to a 2013 OCS report.

To address this wide disparity and combat the impending shortage, construction companies are also doing what they can to ensure new apprentices will be ready to replace an aging work force.

"The training of apprentices, in my mind and everybody within this company's, is a very important factor of how we go forward," said Larry Brokenshire, a strategic adviser at Aecon Group Inc.'s central division. He added that as older tradesman retire, today's apprentices will be the ones becoming superintendents tomorrow.

Mississauga-based EllisDon Corp. also makes wide use of apprentices. The company currently employs about 47 apprentices in Ontario, and many more across Canada.

"[We] believe there will continue to be a strong and growing need for trade apprentices, particularly in relation to certain trades," said Tom Howell, vice-president of EllisDon labour relations.

"Many of the industry's best construction management employees were once trade apprentices and now play critical roles within businesses such as EllisDon," he added.

Despite this opportunity for advancement, the need for workers and the high wages, the stigma surrounding skilled trades still makes recruiting a challenge. But as college diplomas and undergraduate degrees become increasingly common, and graduates have trouble securing meaningful work, the OCS hopes that exposing students to the skilled trades at a younger age will make them think twice about apprenticeships the first time around.

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