Ontario eliminated trades classes for intermediate students in the 1990s – and now we’re paying the price

By Denise Waldron

New Beginnings Contracting Services is a big believer in more trades focus in intermediate and secondary school. Photo: Belinda Wilson.

Erastus Burley is offering to pay a sous chef $46,000 to $48,000 a year plus generous perks. But the manager of The Pie Eyed Monk and the Lindsay Brewing Company andstill can’t find someone, even though, according to the online job site Indeed, the yearly pay for a sous chef is about $35,000 in Canada.

“It’s getting almost unmanageable in the sense that there’s so much competitive jockeying for the small amount of people that want to work,” said Burley,. “Some wages are just astronomical. Now they’re so high in order to get someone to even submit a resumé.”

A shortage of skilled trades workers is not unique to Kawartha Lakes. According to Statistics Canada’s latest estimate, about 700,000 skilled trades workers are expected to retire between 2019 and 2028, creating an ever-growing need to recruit and train thousands more.

While the federal government launched an advertising campaign and website to promote the skilled trades as a strong first-choice career path for youth and young adults in January of this year, Burley believes students need early exposure to the trades.

He is a renaissance man with skills in sewing, cooking, carpentry and set design and building. In Grade 7 and 8 he studied the trades, which set him up for a lifelong love and learning of them. He credits his skills today to this early exposure.

“You can have the greatest home life with the most supportive and intelligent mother and father, but being able to work collaboratively, in home-ec, in shop and in sewing classes is essential to understanding how those trades operate, because they’re all collaborative teamwork efforts.”

Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government announced in May of this year it plans to build 10.5 million homes in the next 10 years. Burley said we are going to need the trades in order to do it. “Perhaps there needs to be an aggressive funding program to encourage those to not all to be marketing managers, Shopify executives, Tik Tok stars or whatever other review platform they want to do that’s connected to video games.”  

The provincial government shut down all shop and home economic classes for Grade 7 and 8 students in Ontario in the late 90s. Retired high school carpentry teacher Pete Tamlin noticed there were fewer students enrolled in his shop classes after the cost-cutting decision. “I think if we exposed them to the trades, there is no question more would choose these classes in high school.”

Students entering Grade 9 only have two optional courses. Without the exposure to mandatory trades classes in Grade 7 and 8, many students choose safe or familiar subjects.

After teaching for 24 years at I.E. Weldon Secondary School in Lindsay, Tamlin said not all students are inclined scholastically, and the trades offer students well-paying, meaningful careers. Tamlin says his shop students were enthusiastic. He recalled building a cottage off the school grounds and the students had even missed their lunch break — they hadn’t noticed because the work enthralled them. “When I mentioned it, most gulped their food and got back to it, with some taking pictures of their work.”

Wood shop class with students in background

Tamlin said bringing back skilled trade classes for middle school students would introduce them earlier and perhaps pique their interest in continuing in high school. But, he added, “The obstacle is there are no shop teachers.”

The PVNC Catholic District School Board does not have any qualified shop teachers on its supply list. Alex Duketow is the board representative for trades education with the board. He supports shop teachers providing innovative programming that encourages and inspires students to move into the hands-on world and into the trades.

The shortage of tech teachers is prevalent across Ontario. Duketow said the province has done a lot to make the transition into teaching for tradespeople easier. He said if someone has a red seal (demonstrating a high level of competence) or a certificate of qualification, or at least five years in their trade, they can get into teaching much faster now. The student teachers enter into a summer of learning at university, followed by a placement during the school year and then a summer wrap-up at teachers’ college.

Duketow said some teacher education universities in Ontario are giving tradespeople a Bachelor of Education, not simply a certificate of teaching at the end of their teacher training program. “It puts them on a very high pay scale coming right into teaching.” He said teaching is a way for tradespeople to give back and to encourage the next generation.

Growing up, Duketow had early exposure to the trades, as his dad was a high-performance auto mechanic. He went on to become a mechanical engineer and obtained his home building licence. He said not all students have the important early opportunity to try the trades but his board has many opportunities for students entering high school to get a taste.

The four elementary PVNC schools in Kawartha Lakes expose Grade 7 and 8 students to the trades in a variety of ways. “Students go to a college to do a hands-on day with plumbing in the morning and carpentry afternoon, for example,” Duketow said. The board also arranges to bring Grade 8s to the high school that they’ll likely be attending and often will include some sort of applied trades experience in the tech shops. He said students see the tech shops are safe and really enjoyable places to learn.

The school board also runs welding camps in the summer. Duketow said the hope is to encourage students to take Introduction to Technology in Grade 9. It seems to be working — there is a waiting list for the class now.

Not all skilled trades workers had exposure at a young age, took an apprenticeship, or went to school for their skills. Moline David learned her trade through love — in a way. She lived and worked in an office in the GTA before meeting and falling in love with her late husband, Terry Arscott. He owned an aggregate and construction company in Fenelon Falls.

Her perfectly manicured nails, stylish hair, bright lipstick and high heels stood out in the gravel pit among men. “Because I was in the office everyday, I just wanted to learn something different. It fascinated me to drive a backhoe,” David said of learning her craft in her 50s from her husband. “I still load the backhoe. People come in for gravel or sand and they can’t believe I can load their truck.”

Her advice to women considering a trade? “Go out and do what you like. It’s fun to show that you can do it and you don’t it have to be dependent on a guy.”

Tania-Joy Bartlett is a master electrician, a heavy equipment operator and has her AZ DZ licence. These skills are no thanks to her early schooling. While her Bowmanville school offered shop classes in the intermediate grades, girls could not take them. She said it was frustrating, but she felt lucky — her dad was really good with vehicles and was an electrician.

Upon entering Grade 9, Bartlett was told girls were not allowed to take tech classes either. “I told the shop teacher that if I sat in the very back of the classroom and didn’t interfere with him, would he let me sit in there? So that’s what he did.” The automotive class would be her only tech experience in high school.

Today, Barlett is the owner and CEO of New Beginnings Contracting Services in Dunsford. She employs 26 people, including four women in the trades.

Bartlett says she could hire 26 more — if she could find them. And without a full team of tradespersons, she said, projects are taking longer to complete.

The entrepreneur is sitting on $4.6 million worth of projects. Staffing is not the only issue holding up the jobs — building permits from the city are taking months instead of weeks.

Bartlett would like to see the return of tech programs for Grade 7 and 8 students because it translates into more people in the trades. She said it’s one of the biggest things when talking with the students from junior achievement or high school. “If you haven’t been exposed to it, how do you know that you might like it, or you might not like it?”

She encourages parents if they are building a deck, to have their daughter with them. “That’s what my dad did with us. He always had me right there as a sidekick.” Bartlett said that is why she’s so invested in doing what she does now with the trades; she got it from a young age. “So you just need to kind of always go back to those basics, those ideas where you’re comfortable.”

According to the Workforce Development Board’s estimated employment numbers, there are just shy of 4,000 skilled tradespeople working in Kawartha Lakes and 169 online job postings locally that are unfilled.

Sandra Wright is the board’s labour market information analyst, and she says with the lack of skilled trades workers, much needs to be done to fill all those job openings. She said the government needs to target the so-called “young/old” tradespeople who left their trades during the pandemic. These workers, in their mid- to late 50s, were fed up with the openings and closings (due to COVID) and called it at day, Wright said. “We need time for workers to feel comfortable to come back into the labour market.”

Along with wooing back experienced workers, Wright said, “Immigration is the answer to the skilled trades shortage as we are not growing our own.”

1 Comment

  1. Wendy Anes Hirschegger says:

    This is an excellent article! I have been saying that the elimination of the “industrial arts” (as well as the home economics) classes in grades 7 and 8 was an enormous mistake and advocating for the trades and Tech Ed throughout both my teaching career as well as my work as a liaison with faculties of education and the Ministry of Education when I worked at the provincial office of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation until my retirement in 2016.
    On one point, however, the article is wrong when it says, “some teacher education universities in Ontario are giving tradespeople a Bachelor of Education, not simply a certificate of teaching at the end of their teacher training program.” This is not in fact a choice that faculties can unilaterally make; there are strict regulatory requirements for the granting of a Bachelor of Education degree. Only teacher candidates who already have an undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree in another area can be awarded a Bachelor of Education. Teacher candidates in the General Education teacher preparation program must already have an undergraduate degree for admission and so all receive a Bachelor of Education. The Technical Education teaching preparation program, however, has different admission requirements: five years of paid work experience in the trade or a combination of post-secondary education and work experience that totals five years (which may or may not include a Bachelor’s degree). As such, a Technical Education teacher candidate who already has a Bachelor’s degree, regardless of what it is in, will be awarded a Bachelor of Education. However, a Technical Education teacher candidate who does not already have a Bachelor’s degree is awarded a Diploma of Education (but this can be converted to a B.Ed. if that teacher later earns a Bachelor’s degree in something else).
    It is my personal opinion (and one for which I advocated throughout my liaison work) that ALL teacher candidates, regardless of whether they are in the General Education or the Technical Education teacher preparation program, ought to receive a Bachelor of Education, but unless the Regulation is amended to deem the admission requirements for the Technical Education teacher preparation as the equivalent of an undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree for the purposes of the granting a Bachelor of Education degree, faculties of education are bound by the current Regulation.

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