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Go west, young apprentice: Alberta holds many opportunities for skilled trades


January 17, 2007
By Michelle Morra

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Greg Melnyk didn’t know what hit him. After years of pounding the pavement in and around his hometown of Hamilton, Ont., almost overnight the 25-year-old found himself gazing at the Rockies with his girlfriend, Jen, in Calgary.

A third-year tool and die maker apprentice, Melnyk has known that he wanted a career in the trades since he took machine shop in high school when he was 16. After graduation, he went to college for four years and earned his mechanical engineering technician degree, specializing in his trade. Nevertheless, he still struggled to find an employer who would take him on as an apprentice. He managed to find work at various jobbing shops in Hamilton, Dundas and Toronto, but few were directly related to his chosen field. He was eventually laid off and had a difficult time re-entering the workforce.

“In Ontario they’re looking for predominantly licensed journeymen with 10 years experience,” says Melnyk. “And the competition – there were probably 10 guys fighting for every position.”

When he was discussing career options with his parents one evening, Melnyk’s dad suggested that he consider Alberta. Melnyk had a friend who’d moved to Calgary and was doing well, and so began his search.
“I went on yellowpages.ca, typed in ‘machine shops’ and ‘tool and die companies.’ I phoned probably every shop in town to see if they were interested in hiring. Almost all of them said yes.”

And almost all of the companies in Calgary that Melnyk called told him that if he moved, he would make, on average, 80 per cent more than he would make in Ontario. So he and his girlfriend talked it over and decided to move as soon as he found a job. Melnyk knew exactly what he wanted and found an employer that needed his set of skills.

“I talked to the general manager and faxed him my resume. He basically said, ‘If this is what you want to do, I’ll hold a job for you,’ and gave me a week to think about it.”

The young couple moved to Calgary in August ’06 and haven’t looked back.

Melnyk is one of many young Canadians who have struggled for a chance to apprentice. At the other end of the spectrum is Rory Neufeld, a fourth-year electrical apprentice who will soon be a full-fledged journeyman at age 22. Neufeld is taking his in-class training at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton. As for on-the-job training, Neufeld admits, “I had a bit of a bonus. My dad owns the company.”

Since high school summer employment, Neufeld worked for his father at Tricom Electrical and has had his career path clearly paved. He knows he’s had a few advantages over other young apprentices, but says that his schoolmates have also found work easily.

“If you can’t find a job in Alberta right now,” he says, “you’re not looking hard enough.”

A well-oiled machine
Alberta is doing more per capita to support skills development than any other province in Canada. Although the province only makes up 10 per cent of the country’s population, it is training more than 20 per cent of apprentices in Canada.

“There’s a high demand here right now for skilled tradespeople, and it’s happening at a record pace,” says Erica McDonald of Alberta Advanced Education. “The number of apprentices in the province has reached a record number of 57,000, and employers are registering about 100 apprentices per work day.”

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology has a waiting list and is working “very creatively” to accommodate more apprentices, says NAIT’s president and CEO, Sam Shaw. The institute provides 50 per cent of Alberta’s apprenticeships, while the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary provides about 26 per cent. Shaw says NAIT also trains 17 per cent of Canada’s apprentices, more than any single institution across Canada.

“In 2000 we were doing approximately 7,000 apprentices,” he says. “This year we’ll do over 15,000, and we’ve been asked to go to over 18,000 next year. So one of the key things is that we need room to expand.”

In November 2006, NAIT announced it was building a new campus and naming it after Alberta’s Premier, Ralph Klein.

“When people ask, ‘Why the Ralph Klein Campus?’ I tell them Premier Klein has been an absolutely tremendous supporter of apprenticeship here in the province,” explains Shaw. “Just to give you a couple of numbers, when I came here as president in 1997, our budget was roughly $100 million. Now we’re at roughly $250 million.”

In April 2005, the Alberta government increased funding for its Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) scholarships to give as many as 500 students access to scholarships of $1,000. Total funds available for the scholarships increased from $50,000 to $500,000. Alberta also offers other apprenticeship scholarships and has several programs for making skills training more financially and geographically accessible (see sidebar).

In July 2006, the government released a strategy for working with organizations to address the skill and labour shortage. The strategy centres around four themes:

1. Inform Albertans and employers about education and labour market issues, initiatives and opportunities;
2. Attract people to Alberta;
3. Develop the knowledge and skills of Albertans, as well as innovative work environments; and
4. Retain people in Alberta’s workforce.

As the place where so many young apprentices flock, NAIT also has a plan to address the skills shortage. The institute’s four-point plan is to develop human capital, leaving no corner of the population untapped; offer creative delivery models such as distance education, video conferencing and taking training equipment into communities on giant tractor-trailers; build infrastructure to create more access for Albertans into the technical areas; and partner with companies to train more students.

“Forty per cent of the workforce is going to retire in the next five to 10 years,” says Shaw. “We need to replace those individuals.”

He says that NAIT is “very, very fortunate” to have received millions of dollars in donations from businesses that want to do their part for apprenticeship training. Shaw encourages institutions in any part of Canada to foster relationships with employers.

Where it’s at
Alberta’s push for skills development is making the trades a more appealing career option than ever.
“People used to think of trades as just a construction worker kind of thing,” says Neufeld, “but since there’s a demand for it now, I guess it’s opening a lot of people’s eyes to it.

“You read about it in the paper, too,” he says. “Younger guys are foregoing university and going straight into a trade after school because they’re more interested in driving a fancy truck than a four-cylinder car from 20 years ago.”

As for Melnyk, when he moved from Ontario to Alberta, his degree exempted him from some of the in-class schooling that would normally be required. He only has to complete one final year of school. And he is very close to reaching the 8,000 work hours required to complete his apprenticeship.

Does he feel conflicted about having left home to go west? He says it was simply a question of where the opportunities were.

“I plugged away in Ontario. I scratched and clawed to get this piece of paper that’s so hard to get, making not the greatest money, either.”

Once certified, Melnyk may or may not take his credentials back home and “be one of those guys they’re looking for.” He hopes to eventually become a mechanical designer.

“I’ve been thinking of opportunities to even open up my own business out here,” he says. “For example, out here, not many people know how to program machines to make certain parts. There are guys who have their own businesses and go into shops and charge thousands of dollars for programs, whereas in Ontario, they pay somebody maybe $35 an hour to write programs. In Alberta they pay big bucks.”

Michelle Morra is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.

Bridging the gap

What do you get when you cross a thriving oil and gas industry with a dwindling worker population? A massive shortage of skilled tradespeople. Albertaís push to support and promote apprenticeship training, however, is slowly but surely making a large dent in the labour gap through these and other initiatives:

• The Alberta Aboriginal Apprenticeship Project – The project promotes apprenticeship and industry training to Aboriginal people, communities and organizations in Alberta. Through the project, Aboriginal people find the guidance and information they need to start and complete an apprenticeship program.
• The Youth Apprenticeship Project (YAP) – Through YAP, Grade 7 and 8 students have access to work experience placements, apprenticeship positions, and mentorship or job-shadowing opportunities offered by local businesses in High Prairie, Lac La Biche and Wabasca/Desmarais. The project also involves tours and demonstrations by certified tradespeople.
• The Youth in Transition to Apprenticeship Project – Launched in September 2006 for young adults (age 18 to 30) who are not currently participating in other educational support programs and are having difficulty linking with employers to set up an apprenticeship, this project helps them get started on their desired career path.
• The Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) – The program is a way for registered high school
students to become apprentices, and earn credits towards an apprenticeship program and a high school diploma at the same time. RAP is an agreement among the student, their employer and their school.
• Apprenticeship industry training scholarships – These are supplied by industry, in partnership with the Alberta Apprenticeship Industry Training Board and the Government of Alberta, for people who arenít enrolled in the RAP program.
• Student In-Site – During class field trips, Grade 9 students in the Edmonton region will see an array of workplaces. The goal is that students will come away with a greater understanding of the range of career possibilities on the horizon.
• Tuition support – Starting in September í07, the Alberta government will limit tuition increases, including that of apprentices, to the cost of living (3.3 per cent).