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Skills Ontario’s Howcroft optimistic about trades growth, apprenticeship programs

Don Wall
Skills Ontario’s Howcroft optimistic about trades growth, apprenticeship programs
SKILLS ONTARIO - The 2024 provincial Skills Ontario competition will take place in May with 2,500 participants expected. Pictured, a competitor in the carpentry competition last May.

Skills Ontario has entered 2024 buoyed by strong apprenticeship numbers and with a refreshed set of apprenticeship programs and initiatives to offer Ontario students, parents and educators.

Statistics Canada reported in December that Ontario recorded a sizable gain in the number of new apprenticeship registrations in 2022, up 7.2 per cent from the previous year, with the number of women across the country entering apprenticeships jumping 28 per cent.

It’s a positive sign says Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft but it must be viewed in the context of Ontario’s need to add 100,000 new skilled trades workers this decade.

He says it’s important to keep tabs on such data as the uptick in entrants in various apprenticeship programs Skills Ontario runs each year and the registration for new events, such as the Skilled Trades Conference for Guidance Educators.

They had 500 guidance counsellors registered last year and 800 are expected this year.

“Things are moving forward. There are excellent results, more registrations for apprenticeships, particularly with some of the underrepresented groups such as young women. So that’s positive. That’s obviously a really important metric that we’re looking at,” said Howcroft recently.

“We’re looking at other metrics too — what’s our reach, what’s the interest level we’re getting, who’s coming to our programming. Because you have to start early on.”


Raising the profile

Skills Ontario has embarked on an awareness blitz as registration opens for a number of its key apprenticeship programs, such as Elementary Career Awareness Workshops for students in Grades 7 and 8 — teachers are urged to sign up soon when registration opens Feb. 13, given high demand.

These three students from the Event Management Program at Conestoga College in Kitchener will support the 2024 Skills Ontario Competition.
SKILLS ONTARIO FACEBOOK – These three students from the Event Management Program at Conestoga College in Kitchener will support the 2024 Skills Ontario Competition.

Among other seasonal events and deadlines, the Skills Ontario Try a Trade Career Fair is set for March 20, presented by the Skills Ontario Young Women’s Initiative; registration for the conference for guidance counsellors opened Feb. 3; and the first Skilled Trades and Tech Inclusivity event of 2024 was held Feb. 6, in conjunction with Black History Month.

It all leads up to the season’s highlight, the 2024 Skills Ontario Competition, to be held May 6 and 7 at the Toronto Congress Centre.

The awareness campaign also includes promotion of the Skills Ontario App, which includes an aptitude quiz to help students match their interests with suitable skilled trade careers; the Skills Ontario YouTube channel featuring a library of videos showcasing past events and skilled trade careers; volunteering opportunities for high schoolers and others with Skills Ontario; and the Trades and Tech Truck, which is proving so popular that Skills Ontario will be adding three new trucks later this year.

“Interest is strong,” said Howcroft, noting there were over 2,000 in-person classroom presentations on the trades last year in front of 135,000 students.

“We want to make sure that we’re offering people the opportunity to get engaged with us.

“It’s an opportunity for us to again raise the profile. February’s when registrations start for the conferences, and then in May we have the competition, the competition registrations were in December and we’re already oversubscribed in many areas.”


Efforts to reach kids early show promise

Seventh and eighth grades have been a “sweet spot” for outreach but efforts launched a few years ago to reach earlier grades are promising, Howcroft said, and so Skills Ontario participated in developing activity books and curriculum for children as young as kindergarten age.

There’s a growing number of outreach programs across the province such as high school career fairs, with Skilled Trades Ontario, the Ministry of Labour, the school sector and the private sector all supporters, but Howcroft noted advertisers say it’s important to get the message out in a sustained way, support that information and then engage the recipient.

“I think more voices is better. What we talk about from a Skills Ontario perspective is what we call our three C’s — collaboration, co-ordination and co-operation,” he said. “There’s such a demand on resources that we can’t afford that fourth C, competition. So we want to try and make sure we are working in a concerted effort to move things forward.”

The skilled trades veteran said advocates in the field have been having similar conversations for 30 years but what’s changed is the urgency of the issue and the abundance of solutions, such as the focus on experiential events. The competitions in May will have 2,500 competitors and 30,000 visitors.

“I’m really excited by the opportunities that we have,” said Howcroft. “It takes time to build on the decades of that negative stigma.”

Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.

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