Mike Ouellette recently received a phone call from a concerned father. “Sir, my son just finished grade 12 and wants to be a welder,” the man said. “And the best offer we can find is a seven-month training program that will cost us $14,000. Someone gave me your name…”
Understandably, word has spread about what Ouellette, skilled trades training coordinator, is offering at Valiant Machine & Tool Inc.’s Training and Development Centre. The training costs nothing. In fact it pays—$12 an hour plus benefits. The Windsor, Ont.-based “Earn While You Learn” program offers specialized training for machine operating, welding, robot programming and other metalworking skills. In less than four years it has become a unique, sought-after alternative to traditional apprenticeship programs.
“We’re trying to convince the government that the old four-year system isn’t working anymore,” Ouellette says.
Training consists of a 46 week “compressed” program, including 240 hours of classroom training before students reach the shop floor. The premise is that training can happen in much less time now that computer-controlled equipment has replaced many of the old manual skills that took years to learn. Besides, industry can no longer afford such a long, drawn-out process considering the dire shortage of skilled labour across Canada. “We don’t have four years to train people anymore,” Ouellette says. “We need them now.”
The company initially conceived of its “Earn While You Learn” concept because of a need within its own workforce. Of the 80 students who have completed the program since its inception in 2008, nearly all are now working for Valiant, with a retention rate of 95 per cent. And, Ouellette says, graduates of the program go straight into meaningful work: “They won’t be sweeping floors or cleaning the boss’ car.”
Besides maintaining Valiant’s own workforce, the centre now trains for another company and has been approached by others in their urgent quest for skilled workers. “We’re not just doing this for Valiant, but for the industry and the economy as well,” Ouellette says. “To be competitive in Canada we need to keep the jobs over here and we need high-end training to be competitive.”
Talent from within
Most of Valiant’s students are fresh out of high school. They range from farmers’ kids who are experienced at fixing machines, to kids with only fast food on their resumés but who are whizzes at video games (and have phenomenal hand-eye coordination). Not everyone is cut out for working with machines and metal, which is why applicants undergo an intense screening process that includes a mechanical aptitude test and a lot of math.
One applicant who made the cut was Brittani Jariett. She started in August and is now learning to operate a CNC machine, for which she has already written a few programs. Despite being totally green when she applied, Jariett has always been mechanically inclined. “When I was younger I always took things apart, put them back together and wondered how they worked,” she says.
Jariett has found the trainers very helpful and admits she asked “a hundred questions” in the beginning. She aims to be running a CNC machine by the end of the program.
“I have a daughter, and here I feel stable,” she says. “I worked at McDonald’s before I came here. Now I feel I have a future and am able to provide.”
Another recent recruit to the program is Nick Solcz. Previously a cook, he was never interested in machines or metalworking—despite the fact his dad, Len Solcz, is president of Valiant’s parent company, Solcz Group Inc.
Then one day, he got curious. “I just kind of gave this program a chance and saw how amazing it was,” he says. Solcz is currently operating a lathe and has discovered how wrong he was to assume this sort of work was predictable.
“It’s an art,” he says. “You’re always creating pieces and components, small parts that go into something larger. Some guys draw up a print, and it’s up to you to take a big chunk of metal and build something that fits their idea. Everyone has to work in harmony with each other.”
Valiant plans to expand the program and is seeking provincial funding, as well as accreditation from the Ministry of Colleges, Training and Universities.
Meanwhile, time is of the essence. Ouellette hopes that young workers will be able to learn from the sector’s more experienced workers before too many of them retire. “We need to take that knowledge from their brains, that they took 30 years to learn, and share it with the younger generation.”
Michelle Morra-Carlisle is a freelance writer from Toronto, Ont.
Finding skilled workers can be easy if you know where to look
By Alison Dunn
Getting more workers involved in the skilled trades and manufacturing sector isn’t just about attracting young men. Here are two organizations that are looking outside traditional areas for help filling the skills gap.
A helping hand for Aboriginals
When Angela Barabonoff heard that the Saskatchewan government had embarked on a mission to Ireland in March, 2012 to find skilled workers, she was dumbfounded. Why would anyone in Canada go abroad to find workers when there is a large group of Aboriginal workers—currently being trained in a variety of skilled trades—just waiting for the opportunity to work?
Barabonoff, secretary-treasurer of the Aboriginal Skilled Workers Association (ASWA) is certainly familiar with helping find Aboriginal workers employment in the skilled trades. As part of ASWA, she helps the organization fulfill its mission to promote both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers in the trades.
“We’re promoting a group of highly skilled, fairly compensated and respected Aboriginal workers supporting their families and healthy communities,” she says.
The association has a database of skilled workers from across the country, ready and waiting to fill jobs in the skilled trades. Formed in 2003 with the Canadian Union of Skilled Workers (CUSW), the organization helps skilled workers find employment contracts and become contractors and workers, as well as ensure they are paid fairly and equitably.
Barabonoff says the association currently sends workers to a number of locations across Canada, particularly in Alberta and Ontario. It also workers with training centres across Canada to help Aboriginals train and become certified in the skilled trades.
For more information on the association and how it can help industry find skilled workers, visit www.aswa.ca.
Sky’s the limit for women in aerospace
Women have been increasingly going into skilled trades and manufacturing, but there’s still a large gap in the upper echelons of industry, particularly in the aerospace manufacturing industry.
“In manufacturing, it’s very male dominated when you get to the supervisory level and above,” says Valerie Wilson, president of Women in Aerospace Canada (WIA).
Wilson recalls attending an event at one of the world’s largest air shows a few years ago and realizing how underrepresented women were in the industry.
“There were probably 150 people there,” she recalls. “And of those 150 people, there were probably five women. It was a sea of black suits.”
Wilson and several other women in the industry (including Judy Duffy from the Ontario Aerospace Council) decided to change that and formed the Canadian chapter of WIA. After just two years of formal existence, the organization is up to 160 members—including both women and men—from Ontario and Quebec.
“Our mission is to promote women into leadership (positions) in the aerospace industry,” says Wilson, “but our secondary goal is to encourage young women to continue in math and science and become engineers, project managers, civil engineers and mechanical engineers.”
After all, without a background in engineering, women won’t be promoted in the industry, she adds. “You’re not going anywhere at a company like Pratt & Whitney if you’re not a PEng.”
WIA held an event to do just that, Wilson adds. It brought together five women who hold senior positions in the aerospace industry and invited a number of young high school students to attend an afternoon tea to hear these women speak. The students had a chance to see successful women working in the field, hopefully to inspire them to move on a similar career path.
“We are making progress,” Wilson says. “The women who graduated 15 or 20 years ago all told a story of how someone in their life told them they couldn’t be an engineer because they were women…. But the women who graduated in the last five years did not say that at all.”
WIA is continuing its quest to promote women in industry with a number of events in 2013, including networking events, lunch and learns and more.
To learn more, visit www.wia-canada.org.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.