It's Cool to Use a Tool
Hands-on trades expo is a hit with students and teachers alike.

By Helen Dolik

Students teetered across a girder, brandished trowels of mortar to slap on bricks and pulled on oversized rubber gloves that protect against a 40,000-volt jolt. They bounced on the seat of a Bobcat or parked themselves at the controls of a computer game simulating the operation of a front-end loader.

Future Building 2001 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre was at full throttle and the construction job fair got the nod of approval from Alfred Alaimo, a guidance counsellor at Father Bressani Catholic High School of the York Catholic District School Board. He carried three plastic bags of information from exhibitors.

"The greatest benefit is for the students," says Alaimo, who attended the November 28-30 job fair with fellow teacher Roman Haluszka and a busload of 45 students. "There are a lot of career opportunities students donít normally get exposed to."

The best thing is itís all hands-on, he says. "Thatís whatís really going to turn the kids on, excite them. It might give them the impetus to investigate further."

That would delight Ontarioís construction industry.

The trades are trying to polish their image and entice young people into the construction field, which employs 300,000 people in Ontario and is the second-largest industry in North America. The trades want to quash the too-stupid-to-do-anything-else image. The theme of this three-day event was "Itís cool to use a tool."

COUNSEL STUDENTS WISELY

The job fair was designed to enlighten students, teachers, educators and the general public about jobs in Ontarioís construction industry. Unions, contractors, entrepreneurs, associations and industry professionals from the trades staffed displays or offered demonstrations of their crafts.

"Itís terrific," Haluszka says. "Iím especially pleased to see a lot of displays and information for people not college-bound.

"A lot of these people donít have enough attention paid to them at school. Theyíre basically ignored and allowed to drift."

The job fair benefits teachers as well, he says. "It enables teachers to counsel students wisely."

The Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), Human Resources and Development Canada and Ontarioís Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities co-sponsored Future Building 2001. And it looks like more are on tap.

The plan is to stage one in the Greater Toronto Area every two years, says Scott Macivor of the Ontario Construction Secretariat. Smaller versions will be held around the province.

"Weíre trying to get young people seriously considering the idea of construction careers," he says. "We need to change the hearts and minds of parents and teachers so they see the viability of these careers."

RECRUITS NEEDED

The industry needs young people to replenish the aging trades and learn skills from the veterans before the skills are lost, he says. The overall average age in the trades is about 44 years old although it does fluctuate by trade.

Part of the industryís promotional strategy is a two-disc DVD called Made with the Trades, which will be distributed to every high school in Ontario. The DVD tours viewers through more than 20 trades, from boilermakers to tile and marble workers.

The new reality is the industry is looking less for strong backs and weak minds and more towards a higher general level of education. Some trades earn six-figure salaries.

"We arenít a dumping ground for people who couldnít go anywhere else," Macivor says. "We do need to meet the demands and the skill sets are changing."

According to the OCS web site, about 3,000 apprentices enter the skilled construction trades every year.

"A construction apprenticeship provides a combination of hands-on training and classroom learning with approximately 75 per cent of the hands-on portion provided in the workplace by actual employers," the site says. "And apprentices typically start at approximately 40 per cent of the journeypersonís wages."

Shannon Kemp, 22, is a third-year apprentice lineman with Black & Mcdonald. At the job fair, he stood beside a table of giant rubber gloves that looked like they could accomplish some serious dishwashing.

"You put those puppies on and you can touch anything up to 40,000 volts," he tells students who gathered at the display.

EARNING WHILE LEARNING

Kemp made $15 an hour in his first year as an apprentice. He was learning and had full benefits after six months. One of his friends is about $40,000 in debt after university and had no job offer.

"Any trade should be promoted more in school," Kemp says. "Everyone is too caught up in the computer age. Thatís what everybody pushes.

"In a trade, you make money while you learn. You donít go into debt. Youíre not constantly pouring money into an education thatís not going anywhere."

The base salary range for his trade is $50,000 to $70,000, he says.

"You have an interesting job and get paid really well," he says. "There are no downsides compared to being cooped up in an office."

Joe Dowdall, a crane operator and training co-ordinator for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 793, gazes at Toronto towers heís helped build and knows heís a part of history.

"Not everybody has to be a doctor or lawyer to make good money," he says. "You can earn as you learn as an apprentice. At the end of an apprenticeship, you have a licence."

Salaries can stretch into the $75,000 to $100,000 range, he says.

Students were encouraged to pick up a trowel or pliers. Weston Collegiate student Jovana Pilgrim, 15, especially enjoyed bricklaying and would consider it as a profession. She was watching the brick-and-mortar demonstration and was asked if sheíd like to try it. She quickly mastered the mortar.

An office job just wouldnít suit Leon Sinclair, 18, another Weston student. He filled his knapsack with information.

"Iíll be venturing off in one of these fields eventually," he says.

Teacher Steve Toth runs the construction technology program at LíAmoreaux Collegiate Institute in Toronto. His students, who have built gazebos and wishing wells, erected a framing display at the job fair.

"This is staged by real tradesmen and professionals," Toth says. "You can get the information directly from the horseís mouth. The kids appreciate it."

"Schools should be in the forefrontof this promotion... Guidance counsellors should be here in busloads."


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