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Ontario government and skills recruiting advocates squarely target high schoolers

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The Ontario government has announced a plan to accelerate its recruitment of young people into the skilled trades through a new schools initiative to be launched next September.

For the first time the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development will send recruiters into schools — possible pandemic restrictions permitting — to talk up and sign up students into the trades, instead of leaving the interface to guidance counsellors. The plan would be co-ordinated with a variety of existing trades awareness programs including in-school presentations hosted by Skills Ontario.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the more direct approach would help to elevate the trades career path above what is typically featured in schools.

“For too long, educators and parents have been telling every young person to go to university,” he said. “I want that to change. We know that these are meaningful, lucrative careers in the trades and the average age of an apprentice today in Ontario is 29. That means that people are piling up debt, going to university then deciding they want to get into the trades afterwards.

“So my mission is to get more young people to choose the trades as a first career path.” McNaughton described how his recruiters would complement the awareness work of Skills Ontario.

“Skills Ontario is going to be putting tradespeople in front of classes across the province, obviously, once we get through COVID-19,” he explained. “And then my approach on the recruiters is to have recruiters going and talking to students directly on the pathways on how you do a pre-apprenticeship program or get into an apprenticeship program.”

McNaughton said one problem is that the pathway into a trade such as a steam fitter or an electrician is less clear than that of a professional career such as medicine or the law. Ministry recruiters will make the point that there are 144 different skilled trades in the province. He noted Ontario is facing a shortage of 22,000 skilled trade workers in the construction industry in the next few years.

Other government skills programs targeting high schoolers include the Specialist High Skills Majors program, which lets high schoolers focus on a career path such as the trades while earning their Ontario Secondary School Diploma; dual credit programs, which allow students to take college or apprenticeship courses that count towards both their Ontario Secondary School Diploma and postsecondary credits including a Certificate of Apprenticeship; and the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program, which lets students work in apprenticeships through a co-operative plan.

Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft said his agency reaches out to students as young as kindergarteners. “We go into the schools and make presentations to kids to build awareness about the opportunities in a skilled trade or technology career,” said Howcroft, noting Skills Ontario employs liaison officers. “And we’ve actually expanded that to go in at earlier grades too and we’ve revised our materials as we go into kindergarten to Grade 7, as well as 7, 8 and into the high school. So the more information and the more connectivity with opportunities is a good thing from our perspective.”

During the pandemic Skills Ontario has had to be inventive, Howcroft said, promoting skills-at-home initiatives and other experiential opportunities based in the home. Other programs such as Winterfest, summer camps and competitions extend the outreach further.

Skills Ontario is in frequent contact with government officials to review opportunities for complementary programming, Howcroft said. “Recruiters can talk a bit more specifically about what the opportunities are,” Howcroft stated. “We’re coming up with solutions, how do we make that connectivity.”

Next up, Howcroft said, is “scalability” — moving from accessing the 125,000 children engaged in Skills Ontario presentations to reach all two million Ontario students.

“And how do we also get more parents. That’s a tough audience to crack. We’re working on how do we make sure parents understand the realities of a skilled trade technology career, so that they’re encouraging their kids to at least look at it, rather than steering them away from it.”

Don Wall/Daily Commercial News/MS

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