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30-year partnership builds trades training legacy

Russell Hixson
30-year partnership builds trades training legacy
CHBA - Thompson Rivers University Students help pour foundation walls for a training home in Kamloops this month. Each year the students help build a home which is then used by the local YMCA to fund community programs.

Thompson Rivers University (TRU) students are currently hard at work in Kamloops, B.C. building a two-storey home in Orchard’s Walk. When the work wraps up in 2020 the house will be purchased by the YMCA-YWCA for its Dream Home fundraiser that helps pay for community programs for the year.

The home marks 30 years of a unique partnership between the university and the Canadian Homebuilders’ Association – Central Interior (CHBA) that has worked to improve the education of trades students.

“In the mid-80s there was a bad housing economy. There were very few builders and they were having a hard time hiring trades,” explained Rose Choy, executive officer for the CHBA Central Interior. “In those days the only hands-on experience for students was building a garden shed, and they kept building the same shed. You could slide the nails in with your fingers. They wanted to give real life experience to get better quality trade students.”

The association and the school developed a program for students in residential foundations, electrical and plumbing trades to get hands on training at the construction site. CHBA members would help to finish the home and then the home would be sold on the market. The profit would offset project costs and fund trades bursaries.

The YMCA became involved 24 years ago when they approached the school and the association to purchase the training home at a discount. The YMCA then planned to use the home as a lottery prize to fund community programs.

According to the association, this addition is a win for everyone as the association and TRU School of Trades now have the stability of a homebuyer from the project’s start regardless of the housing market.

Each year the association also has roughly 70 companies step up and donate materials, time or labour to help teach students and complete the project.

“When they started, they did not think it would be what it is now, did not think of all the benefits for the future of this this industry,” said Choy. “A lot of people sponsor this house and want to be a part of it because it gives that opportunity to students to have that real-life experience. At the same time, they help because they understand that it supports YMCA. It’s an asset to their business because they have better trades people, but at the same time the YMCA is a community service and it improves quality of life for their family.” 

Choy said she doesn’t know of another partnership of this kind that has lasted for so long. Since the program’s inception, more than 300 students have taken part and graduated to move on into residential construction careers of their own. Many have decided to stay in the region to work for local contractors or suppliers, or to open their own businesses.

“We have members who started in this program,” said Choy. “They were students 25 years ago and helped build the first training house. They finished, are now licensed builders and are members giving back and helping with the project.”
She attributed the program’s success to the community of Kamloops which always steps up to make sure the project is completed. Recently, poor weather threatened to throw construction off schedule for one of the homes, but five CHBA members dropped everything and brought their staff to get things back on track.

“Because of the generosity of Kamloops, that is what makes it successful every year. It’s humbling for me to see that,” said Choy. “I would say it is a privilege to be a part of it.”

Jere Lorenz, vice president of the association, echoed Choy’s comments.

“This is the longest standing public/private partnership of its kind across the country and we are proud of all it has provided for our local students, residential construction companies and community as a whole over the years,” said Lorenz. “It is very humbling to witness the full-circle effect this program has had upon our community. We continually see students coming through our doors after graduation or after successfully starting a company of their own, looking to join the association to find ways to give back to the program that gave them an advantageous career start.”

Jim Thomson, owner and president of Plainsman Construction, has been a member of the CHBA for 50 years and was part of the first training house project in 1990. Thomson explained that the industry was wading out of a dismal economic climate that had seen construction starts drop from 1,200 to just 40. Interest rates had risen above 22 per cent. Streets were littered with “foreclosure” signs.

“It took us a long time to come out of that,” said Thomson. 

And when the work began to return, to have more street appeal home design had become far more complex, required more skilled labour.

“There wasn’t a lot of demand in the local market for trades at that time, and once the market started to return the guys coming out of the program didn’t really have the skills the market demanded,” said Thomson.

Building a simple, small square shed wasn’t going to cut it, and the training home program was born. 

“It blossomed after that and it has become the envy of the industry across the country. They marvel at what we have been able to do,” said Thomson. “Maybe it was due to everyone in the community pitching it. We had gone through such a devastating time. When you go through hard times you tend to pull together. It was a made-in-Canada recession that just killed the industry. Some of the best and largest companies went bankrupt.”

Now the program is so prestigious that developers often approach the association with lot deals to get their subdivision off the ground, said Thomson.

 

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