Josef Bowman

Josef Bowman

A future not cloistered in books

With about half of Canada's work force retiring in the next decade, by 2020, a million skilled workers will be needed.

The photo on the cafeteria wall in Samuel Robertson Technical school shows the most recent graduating class of the culinary arts program, 16 smiling students who took the course in 2011-12.

They’re out of the school now and some, not all, are on a career path to earning good money, while many of their peers agonize over book costs and tuition fees.

Cooking is just one of the nine trades programs in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district offering students a short cut to the work world.

Enrolling in the Ace It program allows Grade 12 students to take Level 1 apprenticeship training in automotive, electrical, metal fabrication, hairstyling, culinary arts, carpentry,  plumbing, esthetics and integrated trades, while also earning their Grade 12 diploma.

“There’s a lot of jobs out there. There’s a lot of youth unemployment. We have the jobs, but we don’t have people,” trades program coordinator Ron Lancaster told a recent meeting of moms, dads and kids attending a Skilled Trades Information Session at the school.

A sign on one of the pillars in the cafeteria emphasized the point: “Youth unemployment: 15 per cent – yet jobs go begging for lack of skilled people.”

“If you don’t have the skill set to match those opportunities, then you might find yourself disappointed, left behind,” Lancaster told the crowd.

Before scattering to talk to various trades instructors, the crowd looked at another slide quoting a number from the Conference Board of Canada.

With about half the work force retiring in the next decade, by 2020, a million skilled workers will be needed.

Lancaster says parents are examining the post-secondary options for their kids. He tries to tell them to be realistic and to match their interests with the programs that are out there.

“Right now, the opportunities are in trades and technology – and trades and technology is really where the job growth is going to be.”

At one point, everyone wanted to go to university and become a teacher. “But there are hundreds of unemployed teachers.

“BCIT is now recognized as the finishing school for university graduates, because they realize their degree in cultural anthropology really requires them to go to BCIT to become an electrician if they want to move out of the house before they’re 30.”

That sounds a bit harsh, he admits.

But the intent isn’t to recruit kids who are on their way to becoming doctors.

“The higher achieving kids are going on to university, we realize that.”

But if you have good grades or mediocre ones, choosing a trade could be a way to at least start a working career, even though only 43 per cent of those who sign up carry on to complete their apprenticeship.

Even if a student decides the vocation isn’t right, he or she still has a Grade 12 diploma, Lancaster points out. It’s not considered a lost year.

Lancaster stressed the programs are taught by either trades people from the industry or instructors from the colleges and institutes themselves, giving students their first year of education and apprenticeship at no cost.

“We are teaching the provincial apprenticeship curriculum. This is not pre-apprentice.

“I think we’re giving students a real insight as to where they want to go in their careers.”

While Lancaster says it’s a challenge “to recruit 160 students to make career decisions that are going to affect their lives,” there are students who just know what they want to do, from an early age.

Josef Bouwman is taking the Vancouver Community College culinary arts program during his Grade 11 year at Samuel Robertson Technical.

He’s long had an interest in cooking.

“I love how it’s not all just theory,” said Bouwman, formerly a home-schooled student.

Soon after he started the course, he and his classmates were in the kitchen and cooking for fellow students and the public, which can get a reasonably priced meal at the school every Tuesday to Friday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

He also enjoys the more cerebral tasks required to keep a restaurant running profitably, such as analyzing profit and loss numbers or calculating the financial return that results from serving a particular dish or type of food.

“It’s a great course.”

So far, his favourite type of cooking is main course, vegetables in particular, which are less demanding than creating pastries.

For Grade 12 student Andrew Campbell, the choice was easy.

Campbell is in the carpentry program at Samuel Robertson Technical and graduates in a few months. When he does, he’ll have completed Level 1 at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s apprentice carpentry program. He’ll also have his secondary school graduation, which he earned by having to take only one other course, Grade 12 English, in his final year.

“That’s nice because I do not have to do all the courses that I do not like to do. It pretty much saves me a year.

“I’m pretty lucky. Ever since I was a little boy I had a real itch to be a carpenter.”

Campbell doesn’t like the finicky finishing carpentry stuff, but rather framing carpentry, working outside with quick results.

He’s confident he’ll land a job after graduation with an employer who will allow him to return to Kwantlen for several weeks every year to continue his four-year apprenticeship.

Upon completion, he’ll have Red Seal in carpentry, allowing him to work anywhere in Canada.

You have to put in the time and work, however. School day starts at 7 a.m. every and runs until 12:30 p.m., not always a teenager-friendly schedule.

“It was hard at first, but it’s kind of nice because I have a lot more day,” after class, he said.