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Windsor school board unveils Construction Academy

Ron Stang
Windsor school board unveils Construction Academy
Students focus on tasks at the expansive carpentry lab at Windsor’s St. Joseph’s Catholic High School. The newly unveiled Construction Academy builds on existing programs at St. Joseph’s and Brennan high schools. -

The first program in Canada offered at the high school level to accelerate student trade apprenticeships could go some way to answer the massive need for construction skilled workers.

The Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board, partnering with various industry groups, recently unveiled its Construction Academy, which will open this September.

The academy builds on existing carpentry and masonry programs at two local high schools, St. Joseph’s and Brennan. These schools are unique because they not only allow more students into the program, but they also provide 1,000 hours of apprenticeship training, giving direct links to paid summer jobs and shortening the time by at least a year to obtain journeyman certification. Moreover, students will graduate with a Special High Skills Major Red Seal on their Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

The academy is for Grades 11 and 12 and has two focuses: carpentry — the lab for which includes training in associated trades like plumbing and electrical — and masonry.

Students will rotate between the two as well as take traditional academic courses such as English, math and religion. After graduating, students will have advanced standing at the local St. Clair College of Applied Arts and Technology, which is overseeing the academy.

Dan Fister, the board’s executive superintendent of innovation and experiential learning, said the board launched the academy "in response to skilled trades shortages and changing demographics. We thought it was something that was well overdue."

In the process, the board has partnered with the Windsor Construction Association, the Windsor Essex Home Builders’ Association, the Ontario Masonry Centre and Habitat for Humanity, for which students will build prefab modules for the non-profit’s ranch-style homes.

Dennis Gerrard, executive officer for the Windsor Essex Home Builders’ Association, said he’s been involved in the past with initiatives to address the mismatch between industry needs and education but this effort "has real tangible action."

He said Windsor-Essex has 130 local homebuilders.

"The demand is outstretching the inventory and basically the builders can’t build houses fast enough," he explained.

Windsor Construction Association spokeswoman Christine Prymack said the association "jumped on the opportunity" to support the academy, including printing a career guide distributed to all schools.

"We’re going to help them hopefully facilitate co-op placements," she said. "Many of the members that we’ve spoken to think it’s a great idea."

What’s revolutionary about the academy is that the entire Level One (of three) training for carpentry is offered in high school.

"So students don’t have to go to the college for that," said Susan Friedl, the school board official directly overseeing the academy. "It’s embedded in their construction courses here."

Cory McAiney, who teaches carpentry at St. Joseph’s in the expansive two-level lab, said training will provide foundations so students could branch off into electrical, plumbing or HVAC.

"A lot of the courses and curriculum we’re teaching for Level One masonry and carpentry apply and they’re the same for both, so blueprint reading, math skills, some welding and things like that," he said.

McAiney said the industry has already contributed greatly to the carpentry and masonry programs.

"When you walk into our facility you’ll see large fiscal contributions in terms of building materials, tools, that have come from all across the Windsor-Essex County construction industry," he said. "They’ll give us five times what we ask for because they know it’s going to a good cause."

Another feature will be providing free industry-recognized certifications for First Aid/CPR, WHMIS and working at heights.

Jennifer Hunter, a student at St. Joseph’s Catholic High School, said she’s interested in the academy because of the experience she’s already had in the trades.

"I’m considering carpentry because that offers also a welding dual credit, something I have taken an interest in in my auto class where I started metal fabrication," she said.

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