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Helping hands: Attracting the next generation of skilled workers


January 24, 2012
By Mary Del


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The skilled trades shortage is no longer pending. It is here.

Despite job losses caused by the economic downturn, many Canadian employers continue to have difficulties filling positions because of a shortage of skilled workers. Half of Canadian manufacturers surveyed in a third-quarter 2011 report by PwC say they’re looking to hire in 2012, but they expect to face trouble finding workers with the right expertise. The study found that 45 percent of manufacturers say the limited number of workers has proven to be a “significant barrier for growth.”

And the challenges continue to mount. The population is aging. The first baby boomers will reach the retirement age of 65 this year, according to Careers in Skilled Trades (www.careersintrades.ca). It is imperative that those with the knowledge pass on what they know, to help develop the next generation of skilled workers.

There are, in fact, many opportunities for individuals and companies to help shape the next generation of skilled workers – from volunteering as a mentor to sponsoring a team of elementary or high school students.

FIRST: Working closely with students

Blair Mackenzie got involved in FIRST Robotics Canada when his son, Ian, stumbled upon the program as a Grade 9 student about 12 years ago.

“I and my wife just watched with some awe as the program really unfolded and as he blossomed in it. We saw the possibilities and we saw the strength of it, and we got involved and stayed involved,” says Mackenzie, who is now the chair of the board for FIRST Robotics Canada – the Canadian arm of a not-for-profit organization aimed at inspiring young people to pursue careers in the field of science, technology and engineering. The group pursues this mission through running robotics competitions for students at the elementary and high school levels.

Mackenzie’s son is now working on his Ph.D. in engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

“As a parent, you take notice when you see a program like this having the kind of affect it did on our son. He was a classic example of somebody who in Grade 8 was sort of drifting. We didn’t know what was going to motivate him. And in Grade 9 he came across this program and it was just like this giant switch went from off to on and we watched him just, all of his marks improved,” he explains. “Ian clearly had a bent in that direction, and he might have found his way there, but along the way, what FIRST did was it sort of propelled his exposure into it. It accelerated far beyond anything the school system could have done without a program like this…It put him in contact with a very large network of like-minded young people, and that’s pretty impressive to see that happen in front of you.”

It’s because of this transformation that Mackenzie witnessed first hand, that he volunteered his time to FIRST Robotics, and is a big proponent of the value of the program and the need for volunteers to help keep it going.

There are three levels within FIRST Robotics and, therefore, ample opportunity and need for volunteers. The flagship program, FIRST Robotics, is aimed at the high school level – ages 14 to 18 – where the students build a robot from scratch in just six weeks. The next level – FIRST Lego League – is directed at students ages 9 to 14, and introduces them to real-world engineering challenges by building Lego-based robots to complete tasks. The youngest group – Junior FIRST Lego League – introduces six- to nine-year-olds to the exciting world of science and technology with a real-world challenge, to be solved by research, critical thinking and imagination.

There are opportunities for individuals to volunteer at all three levels, whether it’s as a mentor – working with the teachers and students behind the scenes, providing guidance during the build period as you help the team meet the challenges of the competition by sharing your expertise – or as a volunteer at a competition – everything from setting up competition tables and crowd control to judging and refereeing.

The role of mentor, says Mackenzie, is extremely important for the program’s success.

“We think an important part of learning through this program takes place when young people get to work side by side with a professional engineer and start to experience upfront how the engineer would think about the problem; how the engineer would approach the issue, and so on. We think there is so much to be gained by that,” he says. “And I think for those who get involved it could be very fulfilling, although, to be honest, it’s demanding, especially during the build period.”

Mackenzie adds that the time commitment depends on the age group – the older the team, the greater the commitment. He also says that you can dial your commitment to what you want it to be.

“The opportunities to get involved, they’re quite flexible,” he says. “There are volunteer mentors who participate at quite a few different levels of intensity. Some get really swept up in it and come back year after year, and others come in for awhile and enjoy it and then move on. Some are there basically taking part in almost everything the team does, and some just choose to involve themselves in [whatever their area of expertise is].”

Volunteers can also start their own teams. It doesn’t have to be a school, says Mackenzie. It can be a church group or a group of neighbourhood kids.

There are also opportunities for companies to get involved.

“A key role naturally is donors. We always need those,” says Mackenzie. “We have companies that are involved as equipment donors, too. We have companies whose involvement includes lending us mentors. A number of companies have been very generous in spreading the word within their company and encouraging people to…help out.”

There is always a need for volunteers, says Mackenzie, adding that teams are always looking for help or expertise.

“To me, the value lies in inspiring more young people than ever to look into and take seriously a career that is oriented to, not only math, science and technology, but also trades,” he says. “With any luck, our program will help generate a larger and larger number of young people who look on these as areas of very real interest and holding promise for them. That’s the idea.”

If you are interested in volunteering with FIRST Robotics, or would like to start your own team, visit www.firstroboticscanada.org to learn about opportunities in your geographical area.

Start your own team

Several years ago, Gerald Beaudoin was trying to find an apprentice for the summer, and discovered that there weren’t many available.

“I sort of thought, ‘Oh, geez, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in taking these courses,'” he recalls. “I thought to myself, if I could get young folks interested in technology at a younger age, it would stimulate them to follow a technological path [and] pay more attention to math and sciences.”

That’s when Beaudoin, the automation project manager with Leahy Orchards Inc. in Franklin Center, Que., stumbled across the FIRST Lego League platform.

He found a local elementary school that was interested in putting together a team of Grade 6 students. Beaudoin used the Lego platform, but ran the program independently of the FIRST Lego League, which simply meant he couldn’t enter his team into any of the competitions.

“I built a small program, which I ran in the grade school…and it was very successful. The kids were highly motivated. They were very pleased with what they did and it demonstrated to them the need for math, and staying in touch with technology.”

Beaudoin developed an eight-week long program, which consisted of an hour after school once a week. But his time commitment also included planning and preparing the program, as well as driving to and from the school – about five hours a week in total, he says.

“We built this robot from the Lego platform, and eventually added more and more sensors onto it to get it to do more and more things, such as detecting stuff and picking up stuff and moving to predetermined points, and all of those sorts of things,” he explains. “And of course they had to program it themselves, so they were all really keen with that…There was light detection, there was sound detection, presence of objects, motorized servos, which they programmed to rotate either in degrees or fractions of a rotation…It forced them to use their math skills to make these calculations.

“The feedback was very positive. The kids were highly motivated. Often times one of the biggest problems I had was controlling all of the noses pressed up against the door outside looking into the room,” he recalls. “For the final event, I invited the parents to come in and see the final product that the kids had put together, and they were able to demonstrate their robot as it followed the lines on the floor and went to pick up a ball and responded to hand claps.”

Because of his schedule, Beaudoin is not able to run the program this year. However, he hopes to continue in the next school year. Beaudoin can’t stress enough the importance of industry getting involved in attracting today’s youth to the skilled trades.

“I’ve been working in this for like 25, 30 years; electronics for 40 years. I’m moving up the line, and all of this knowledge and expertise is eventually going to be lost. It’s going to go. And you’ve got this generation that’s coming up behind you. It would be great if I could transmit some of this to the younger generation,” he says. “I’m trying to…impart some of the knowledge and some of the expertise that I’ve got and give them a head start, rather than have to learn it all themselves. If they’re open to learning, then I think there’s a lot of people out there that are willing to share what they’ve acquired through the years.”

Share your skills, Canada

Shaun Thorson was very eager to discuss the opportunities for industry representatives within Skills Canada because, he says, “we definitely cannot do this without the participation of industry.”

Thorson is CEO of Skills Canada, a national, not-for-profit organization that works with employers, educators, labour groups and governments to promote skilled trades and technology careers among Canadian youth. Their goal is to introduce young people to the many opportunities, benefits and rewards of skilled and technological jobs.

There are various volunteer opportunities with different levels of commitment, he says.

Skills Canada is always looking for volunteers for provincial technical committees to help design challenges for school, provincial and national competitions, to make sure that they’re pressing the proper skills in the competitions.

Individuals can also become involved with some of Skills Canada’s provincial territorial in-school presentations, where individuals go into the school system and make presentations on the trades and technology. The organization is also looking for individuals with technical expertise who can judge at some of the competitions, or those interested in mentoring a team.

“There’s always a shortage of people that have the expertise and are able to talk about those careers, and whatever we can do to connect young people with individuals that are already in the industry, we feel is a huge benefit,” says Thorson.

Companies can get involved by donating equipment and materials, and there are also a number of sponsorship opportunities. Skills Canada is also looking for companies that want to open their doors and allow students to come in and get a better understanding of what’s really involved in that industry, and what careers are available.

“I think that’s obviously one of the largest barriers, as I don’t think students, especially at the secondary level, are really aware of the different career opportunities,” says Thorson. “So any time we can take students into a setting and try to give them a sensory experience of that industry, I think that resonates a lot more with them.”

If a company or an individual has an idea for a program and would like to discuss it with Skills Canada, Thorson says they are open to that, too.

And he stresses that the time commitment is whatever those companies or individuals want it to be.

“We treat all of those relationships as volunteer opportunities, so if you’re participating on a provincial technical committee at the competitions, there’s definitely the couple of days of competition that you want those people to be available to participate. And then there’s usually a couple of days of meetings leading up to the competition that is a requirement. If you’re talking about participation in an in-school presentation, that might be as short a timeframe as 30 minutes, or maybe as long as an hour and a half. Again, it’s pretty flexible from each of our provincial and territorial offices, and trying to meet the needs and the time that’s available from those companies.”

Whatever the time commitment, volunteering at any capacity is key to building a skilled workforce.

“This needs to be viewed as an investment from industry. These activities are a direct link to young people and an opportunity to bring them into their industry and get them excited about their industry,” says Thorson. “Companies need to look at it as an investment. This is something that will pay back dividends for them in being able to find skilled people.”

To learn about the different volunteer opportunities available at Skills Canada, visit www.competencescanada.com, or contact one of the provincial offices.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.