Now's the time to trade up

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Thanks to B.C.'s robust economy–and competition from the Alberta energy boom–there has never been a better time to find entry-level positions in the trades. Employers are so short of staff that they're hiring off the street–as Cheri Bowland found out when, urged on by former roommate April Crockett, she signed on with Whistler-based Alpine West Systems Electrical as an electrician's assistant.

"The company was scrambling for people, to be honest," the 25-year-old says with a laugh, interviewed by telephone. "So they were pretty much willing to take anybody who wanted to do it."

But Bowland's looking for more than a few quick bucks. Time spent on a fast-food assembly line convinced her that she needs not just a job but a career, so with the support of her employer she's enrolled in BCIT's apprenticeship program, with the aim of becoming a journeyperson electrician.

"Once I get my ticket I can go anywhere, anywhere I want to," she explains. "Eventually I might think about opening my own business, or going up to Fort McMurray”¦there are so many options that I have now that I wouldn't have, working in the service industry."

That's a theme echoed by Crockett, who's nearly finished a four-year BCIT apprenticeship sponsored by her employer, Galaxy Plumbing Drainage & Heating Ltd. "There are so many avenues you can go to once you become a journeyperson," says the 29-year-old, interviewed during a break from installing sinks, toilets, and drainage systems on the same Pine Street site where Bowland works.

"I recommend getting into the trades," she adds. "From now until the Olympics it is booming. Everybody everywhere is screaming for trade workers.”¦We could walk onto any job site and talk to any company and they'll either hire you or send you to another one. If one person says no, there are 10 others that want you."

One option that Bowland and Crockett don't mention is moving up in the managerial hierarchy of the construction industry. This was the path taken by journeyperson electrician Teresa Hurrell, who graduated from BCIT in 2005. Now 29, she's working on the 31st floor of a downtown office tower as a foreperson with Mott Electric Ltd., one of only a handful of women to hold such a position.

Hurrell's decision to enter a trade was driven by economic necessity: in her mid 20s she found herself working four part-time jobs (pumping gas, delivering pizza, waitressing, and refereeing hockey games) and only barely scraping by. But it was also the result of a near-revelatory experience.

"One day when I was at the gas station, this guy had to come and fix a pump," she explains by phone. "He wasn't an electrician–he was more like an electronics technician–but he opened up the pump and he looked at it and did a couple of little tests with his meter, and put a new piece in, a fuse or a diode or something, and it was fixed. I was like, 'Wow, that's the coolest thing ever!' And the next day I decided to become an electrician."

Rather than sign on with a company right away, however, Hurrell opted to enroll in BCIT's one-year pre-apprenticeship program, which led to her recruitment by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"We had a guy from the union hall come and talk to us, and he said, basically, 'If you apply with us, we put you out into the field, and we give you jobs, and every six months we move you around, so you get experience in different things.' I thought that was a really good idea, so I applied at the union–and about two weeks before we were due to graduate I was working."

During her apprenticeship, however, Hurrell had firsthand experience of some of the stresses on the system, which was radically overhauled after the B.C. Liberals' election in 2001. Under the old apprenticeship system, the province had inspectors in the field monitoring inductees' progress, but those positions were eliminated when B.C. moved to the current employer-driven model.

"For me, the system worked–to a degree," Hurrell says. "Like, I worked for 10 months on the SkyTrain doing the same thing, when I should have been moved out of that and into something else for more experience."

Even some employers feel that the province moved too far in dismantling the previous arrangement. "There are issues, for sure," says Abigail Fulton, vice-president of the British Columbia Construction Association. "I mean, they cut the staff down to nubbins, right? So, naturally, over that period of time there were some issues that came up, particularly around getting information, scheduling apprentices' training, keeping the system humming along. It's really quite a complicated system, and I think possibly that was lost on the powers that be.

"But they're resolving all of that," Fulton adds–which is not quite the position taken by Joe Barrett, a researcher with the British Columbia & Yukon Territory Building & Construction Trades Council. "We're muddling through in B.C.," he comments, "but we've really blown an opportunity to beef up our training. We could have done a lot more over these last three or four years, and we should be doing a lot more right now.

"Alberta is completing 5,300 journey-level workers annually, while we're completing about 2,500," he adds. "It gets down to support from the apprenticeship-training authorities–and specifically this thing about the counsellors being out there to ensure that people go back and get their technical training when it's time."

Supporters of the B.C. approach can point to the April 20 opening of Kwantlen University College's new Trades and Technology Centre, which is intended to accommodate over 900 aspiring carpenters, mechanics, and masons. The Cloverdale facility is a major step forward, but Kwantlen's dean of trades and technology, Dana Goedbloed, is quick to identify areas in which further progress can be made.

"I'm somewhat critical of the current system, particularly as it relates to an economic approach rather than an educational approach," she says. "From the neoliberal perspective, in particular, it's all economics. You know, 'We can keep this person here and we can train them to do what we want them to do and we don't have to worry about them progressing and getting an education.'"

Goedbloed also points out that those training the next generation of skilled workers must answer to three masters: the Ministry of Advanced Education funds the physical infrastructure; the Ministry of Economic Development pays for the apprenticeship training programs; and the Ministry of Education is responsible for promoting the trades as a viable career option for high-school students.

"It gets quite confusing, actually," she notes. "You have to be pretty astute, politically, to keep up with it. But I'm very hopeful for the system. I think that there is some movement to recognize some of the issues that you and I have been talking about. I'm starting to get the sense right now that we're back into the public discourse."

And that, of course, is a discussion dominated by one looming fact: as Fulton contends, "Even if every kid in high school decided to go into the trades, I'm not sure there'd be enough tradespeople to build all the buildings we're planning to build in B.C."

Which, again, makes it a good time to become an apprentice, an option that both Bowland and Crockett are quick to recommend for young women–and for young men, too.

Hurrell agrees, with one caveat: "If you want something, you have to tell people what you want, because nobody else can read your mind," she advises. She's specifically addressing the fact that under the current model, apprentices are responsible for advancing their own training, but her opinion seems like good life counselling as well. "Nobody cares enough to try and figure it out for you," she concludes. "You have to figure it out for yourself."