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Breaking down the age barrier to foster more apprentices

Ian Harvey
Breaking down the age barrier to foster more apprentices

Entering into an apprenticeship at an early age is a time honoured pathway into the skilled trades, but times are changing and it’s much more complex today.

For one, trades are being presented earlier as a viable option to university.

The Ontario government has recently changed the educational curriculum to expose students as young as Grade 1 to the construction trades. Other programs are reintroducing “shop classes” which aim to help students leave school at Grade 11 to train as apprentices in the skilled trades, with credit for classes taken at school and with a high school diploma.

Announcing the program in March, Ontario Premier Doug Ford called it a “game changer,” while Education Minister Stephen Lecce described it as a “better, simpler, faster way to get students from high school into the skilled trades which seeks to balance the training and academic skills new apprentices will need.

It does address one facet of the challenge: the average age of an Ontario apprentice is between 26 to 28, while the average age of an Ontario Youth Assistance Program (OYAP) apprentice is 18 years old. About 25 per cent of students in the OYAP option are registered as apprentices while in high school.

The new initiatives seem likely to drive that average age down at a time when more journeymen are retiring.

It sounds promising since we need 256,000 new apprentices to fill that looming void.

Clearly the trades aren’t for everyone, though that paradigm has shifted also. More women, for example, have entered the sector and excelled.

But it does open up a question about another cohort that seems neglected: older workers looking to change careers.



For middle-aged workers looking to switch, or new Canadians looking to move into the trades, the initial cost of college and subsequent entry level wages don’t always cover the cost of housing, food and shelter for themselves or likely their family.

A year ago, Monte McNaughton, Ontario minister of labour, immigration, training and skills development, announced Better Jobs Ontario which provides up to $28,000 for an apprentice in loans which in part targeted that older cohort. It covers tuition and other costs. It expands on the Second Career program, offering up to $500 a week in financial support.

For new Canadians, reaching out is critical, says McNaughton, since many have skills acquired in their home countries but not recognized in Canada.

“We’re working on both second careers and immigration,” says McNaughton.

“Around 18 months I introduced legislation to fast-track certification for skilled trades and other professions, eliminating the Canadian work experience requirement. If you were a newcomer you had to wait two to five years before you could go write an examination. Now they can go to the regulatory bodies and get certified more quickly. It’s really helping. For those looking to get a better career we created Better Jobs Ontario and through Jobs Ontario they can get connected.”

He says there were two main issues when he took over as minister two years ago, one being the average age of an apprentice being 29 years old and that one third of the journeymen in the trades were over 55 years old.

“I remember the day at Centennial College and I met a class of automotive technicians, and about half had graduated from university with student debt but here they were following their passion,” he says.

“They’d always wanted to do that but were pushed into university. That’s an injustice to young people and we’re really shifting gears to introduce people to the trades earlier to encourage kids in Grades 7 and 8 to end the stigma.”

Melissa Young, chief executive officer and registrar at Skilled Trades Ontario (STO), the successor to the Ontario Trades College, says one of the challenges traditionally is that apprentice programs tended to be silos, an area she’s determined to address going forward.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel at STO, we need to do more at a marketing and promoting skill levels,” she says.

One of the areas of outreach is looking locally when a plant closes or relocates, she says, and being there as the workers start to exit to assess their skills, see what they might be compatible at in a skilled trade setting and look at offering apprenticeship opportunities with financial supports.

“We need to retrain them and get them back in the workforce,” she says, noting a general push on skill equivalencies within the trades themselves could see one qualified or partially qualified tradesperson transition to another trade on a faster track.

“We’ve set up an online system and we help them through assessment so they don’t get rejected because they missed something on the forms,” Young says.

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