March/April 2008

Test-driving a career in skilled trades

Cooperation key to North Bay co-op initiatives

By A. Gordon

Laura Bucknell stands in front of a CNC milling machine at Sandvik.

While growing up in North Bay, Laura Bucknell never dreamed that she would one day pursue a career as a machinist. As a student at West Ferris SS, her favourite class had always been shop, however she never suspected that this could lead to a job. Besides, university was usually presented as the only option if one hoped to eventually land a good job. Then one day her shop teacher approached her about participating in a trade apprenticeship co-op program being offered through the Near North School Board.

“I’d never even heard about apprenticeships,” admits 20-year-old Bucknell, “but I knew it was definitely something I wanted to try out.” Around this same time last year, Bucknell began her co-op assignment as a machinist apprentice at Sandvik (then J N Precise), a high-technology engineering group and manufacturers of mining equipment and tools.

Ken Perrin, Sandvik’s operations manager, said he couldn’t have been more pleased by Bucknell’s performance. So pleased, in fact, that Bucknell is now employed full time as a first-year machinist apprentice at Sandvik.

 “I call Laura our ‘poster person’ for co-op programs,” said Perrin. “Not only is she a terrific worker, but here we have a female in a traditionally male occupation who might never have entered the trade if it hadn’t been for the program.”

Perrin also serves on the board of Youth Employment Services (YES) through which Sandvik also obtains trade apprentices, and attributes the success of both initiatives to the terrific spirit of cooperation in the North Bay community — from the school boards and various support groups to local employers and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.

“Everyone is working towards the same goal — that of getting more skilled trades people and hopefully keeping more young people from leaving to look for jobs,” said Perrin. “We want to get the message out that even though there’s no actual mining here, there are a lot of jobs in industries related to it. People can actually acquire a skilled trade right here in North Bay and start earning money right away doing it.”

One of the architects of the Near North School Board’s co-op program, Ontario Youth Apprenticeship program coordinator Dez Collins, said that in their experience career education has been the best way for students to get a feeling for whether or not a certain job is right for them. “Choosing a career is a big decision,” said Collins. “We want to help them focus, and one of the best ways is actually trying it out.”

Collins said that the co-op is part of the school board’s larger pathways initiative. “We’ve been trying to show students and their parents that university is not the only option,” he explained. “There are different pathways, and they’re all good. In our experience, 75 per cent of graduates do not enter university and 50 per cent go straight into the workforce.” Collins also pointed out that of the approximately 7,000 careers one theoretically has to choose from, only 500 of those actually require a university degree. “The most important thing is to find your own path,” said Collins, “the one that suits your strengths and desires.”

The first challenge, he admitted, is raising awareness about what a career in skilled trades is actually all about. “The co-op program really gained momentum from another event we began a couple years ago called MSI — Mine Scene Investigation — that Roy Slack, chairman of the CIM Northern Gateway Branch, brought to us,” explained Collins. “It’s a take-off on the popular CSI television series and was intended to educate students and parents about mining and jobs related to the industry and to dispel some of the myths.”

Slack, who is president of Cementation, a contracting and engineering company specializing in the design and construction of mines, said that one of the biggest obstacles to overcome is that parents often perceive a career in trades to be little more than a glorified blacksmith’s job. “People are often very surprised by the level of sophistication involved,” said Slack. “It’s a very highly skilled profession. In some instances, these workers are operating machinery that can cost up to $1 million. Also, after a three-year apprenticeship they can have a red-seal trade that they can take anywhere in Canada.”

Slack said that when Collins recently approached him about getting involved with a new co-op initiative, he thought it was a great idea. He began by circulating a mass email to the CIM branch membership informing them of the program. “The North Bay Branch has really been working to integrate the various educational groups,” said Slack. “In fact, we now have both university and college representation on our board. So we’re very encouraged by the prospect of working with the school board again.’”

Perrin added that it also helps that business owners sit on the boards of some of these programs, as he does. “It’s also important that [the program administrators] understand what the needs of businesses are,” he explained. “For example, it goes a long way if they do their jobs up front, screening the student candidates to make sure that they are actually interested, and have the right attitude.”

As for Bucknell, she said that it really helped her that her parents were so supportive of her decision to enter a skilled trade, though admitted that many of her friends were rather shocked. “They couldn’t believe that I’d actually be working as a machinist,” she said, “However pretty soon a lot of them were saying, ‘boy, I wish I could do that.’”

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