A co-op education program at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School enables senior students to put down their pens and paper and try out the skilled trades while earning credits towards their academic studies.
Students in Grades 11 and 12 who are interested in learning more about the trades are connected with potential employers in the region so they can learn more about a trade before making a commitment. In the program, employers show them some of the ins and outs of pursuing such a career.
Those who participate in the program earn elective credits which count towards their high school diplomas.
“COVID has been awful but the one benefit is that the economy here in terms of the trades and the building industry has exploded,” explains Jason Morissette, co-operative education and social science teacher at the school who quarterbacks the program. “It has really created an opportunity for a program like this.
“It has allowed us to go out to employers and say, ‘Hey, if you’re looking for students that might be interested in a potential career or a summer job, we have them.’”
A lot of people have been moving from urban areas to Haliburton and it has added to the demand for services, explains Morissette. As a result, there has been exponential growth in construction and an increase in demand for skilled trades workers in construction as well as professionals in other types of industries.
While co-op education has been a part of school programs for the better part of 30 years, it has become increasingly more popular because of the skilled trades shortage and the attention the issue is receiving. Indeed, reports indicate that more than 100,000 workers will be needed in Ontario’s construction industry over the next decade. Many of the jobs are in the residential construction sector.
According to Morissette, it’s important for schools to partner with employers to help get youths into the trades.
“In my opinion, we really have to look at it as a social responsibility to help our youth out because a high school can’t train all these young students and let them know what it’s really be like to become an electrician or a plumber.”
Through the program, students earn elective high school credits towards their Ontario Secondary School Diploma by combining course curriculum with a work placement that teaches a skilled trade. Students are not paid for the work. They can earn one credit for one period of co-op work, two credits for a half day of co-op, and four for a full day of co-op. All insurance for the students is fully covered by the Trillium Lakelands District School Board while the students are working at their placement with an employer.
The program is especially helpful for those senior students who are interested in apprenticeships, a college diploma, university degree, or intend to enter the workforce after they graduate from high school.
The co-op gives students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with employers and learn more about a trade before committing to a full-time training program, says Morissette. He tries to make sure a student is a good fit for an employer and that the candidate also has the maturity and proper work ethic.
“That’s important for employers. They have to be able to trust that I’m going to help them to make sure that the fit is right. They don’t really know the student, they’re not sure if I’m linking them to a student that has the aptitude to do the job, so we’re trying to do a good job of ensuring a student is ready for a co-op.
“What I say to students is that it’s like a tryout. You’re trying out this job to see if it would be a good profession or career, and the employer is trying you out, too, to see whether you have the aptitude or skill sets.”
Although there is a labour shortage, Morissette says it can still be a tough sell getting employers to take on a co-op student. However, he maintains that is often due to misunderstandings about the program and usually those initial apprehensions are alleviated once he explains how the system works.
Some employers, for example, are worried that hiring a co-op student will mean they can’t bring on as many apprentices but that is not the case, he says.
“What the employer thinks is, ‘I have to take them on as an apprentice.’ But that’s not true. It has been quite a challenge to get a lot of the trades employers to take on a young person and give them an opportunity. I try to express all the incentives because the student isn’t paid and they are fully insured by the school board.”
While the experience helps the students, Morissette notes it’s also in the best interests of employers to get more youth into the trades because they are the workforce of the future.
“I think the only way for us to help is to do it together.”
Morissette says any initial hesitation that some employers have at the beginning of the program often melts away by the end.
“It’s amazing when employers give me feedback and say, ‘In the start-up we had to teach them some things for the first few weeks, but then the student kind of knew what they were doing and really helped a lot.’”