Conestoga’s School of Trades & Apprenticeship is building tomorrow’s talent

With Ontario facing skilled trades shortages, there’s a movement afoot to attract young talent. At Conestoga College, skilled trades and apprenticeship training have long been a focus. Students at their School of Trades and Apprenticeship benefit from partnerships with local, national and international companies which guide programs and offer experiential placements across the Construction, Motive Power, Industrial and Service sectors.

Polytechnics Canada checked in with Suzanne Moyer, Dean of Trades & Apprenticeship, and Tony Thoma, Executive Dean, Engineering, Technology, Trades & Apprenticeship, to discuss current initiatives to boost the skilled trades workforce.

Polytechnics Canada: Conestoga has a well-regarded “Jill of All Trades” program. Can you speak to how that initiative got started and how it has developed over the years?

Suzanne Moyer and Tony Thoma: Jill of all Trades is a day-long event offered each year to young women in grades 9-12 with the goal of inspiring them to consider trades as a viable career option. The day includes a keynote speaker, female mentors, hands-on activities and games, food and –most of all – an opportunity to try at least three trades.

The event was first hosted at Conestoga in 2014 with 90 students and 12 workshops. In 2019, we attracted 220 students for 15 workshops in areas including masonry, carpentry, heavy equipment operation, millwrighting, plumbing, automotive service and electrical.

After trademarking the name “Jill of all Trades” and with the support of sponsors and partners, future events will take place at locations across the province and across the country. We are very excited about the reach going forward and the potential for more young women to understand opportunities in the skilled trades.

Jill of All Trades is just one example of the way we are attracting more women and other under-represented groups.

PC: Conestoga offers a range of pathways to skilled trades careers, from pre-apprenticeship to diploma programs. How have these pathways changed over the years? Why?

SM and TT: Pathways into the trades have needed to adjust over the years. It can be difficult for someone to go directly into an apprenticeship with an employer without having a foundation in the trade. It can also be difficult and time-consuming for an employer to train someone who doesn’t have foundational skills. For this reason, we’ve developed one-year certificate programs and two-year diploma programs that provide an excellent base for students interested in moving into a formal apprenticeship.

Conestoga also offers pre-apprenticeship programs that are supported by government funding and, as a result, are tuition-free. These are often directed to under-represented groups or those with barriers to employment, and can include an eight-week paid placement. Across these programs, we try to embed Level 1 apprenticeship technical training, giving students a head start on an apprenticeship.

We have also increased our dual credit programming for high school students, allowing them to obtain both high school and college credits in occupations like carpentry, welding, plumbing and electrical. This is an excellent way for high school students to gain exposure to a trade and learn about the diverse career opportunities available.

We are also seeing university graduates and foreign-trained professionals looking to enter the skilled trades. In these cases, the college offers a credit transfer process and, for apprenticeship training in particular, employers can assess technical competencies achieved elsewhere to reduce the duration of on-the-job training.

PC: Are there some trades where demand is particularly high right now? What have you been hearing from employers about talent gaps and skills needed in these occupations?

SM and TT: We have a systemic trades shortage in Canada right now, with almost all trades in high demand. Demand is being driven by retirements, industry growth, housing demand, infrastructure projects and changing technology. Employers are looking for individuals with a good work ethic, who are open to learning, take pride in their work, have good communication skills and can work well with a team. These skills are just as critical as technical knowledge.

PC: Has the pandemic changed the way you offer apprenticeship training or the number of apprentices coming to Conestoga?

SM and TT: The pandemic certainly changed the way that we offer apprenticeship training. While course content dictated how various classes could be offered, we introduced online learning, simulation and pre-labs. We also modified delivery and schedules to minimize the number of apprentices on campus at any one time.

Overall, the pandemic did not change the number of apprentices coming to Conestoga. We continue to offer classes across all of our trades. To address physical distancing and other pandemic-related health and safety requirements, at times we have reduced classes to 10 students and modified projects to allow for more individual work.

Conestoga’s Teaching and Learning team has provided excellent resources and creative solutions to support the transition to online and remote teaching. We are very proud of how everyone – faculty and students alike – adapted to the changes.

More stories from the skilled trades sector can be found in this Polytechnics Canada publication. Interested in a career in the skilled trades? Learn more at Conestoga’s School of Trades and Apprenticeship.

About the Authors

Suzanne Moyer, Dean of Trades & Apprenticeship

Tony Thoma, Executive Dean, Engineering, Technology, Trades & Apprenticeship