Traditionally, the education system has focused on encouraging students to attend degree-oriented post-secondary programs—an option only about one-quarter of students in Alberta have been choosing.
“When you think about it, what were we doing for the other 75 per cent?” asks David Khatib, division principal, Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools. “We were having more and more students entering the trades areas directly from schools, and we needed to make sure we were preparing them for life after high school. It’s what society is demanding from education, and we’re responding.”
That’s why both the Red Deer Public School District and Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools are interested in the Learning About Trades and Technology Education (LATTE) initiative, a pilot program in central Alberta designed to give high school teachers first-hand knowledge of construction. The program is intended to help ensure industry has the workers it needs going forward.
Although things are slow today, Alberta’s construction industry faces significant challenges in maintaining a skilled workforce in the coming years. According to a BuildForce Canada report from earlier this year, 18 per cent of the province’s current construction workforce is expected to retire between now and 2025. In response, industry is going to have to try to attract people who changed careers or left the province during the downturn—or entice new workers to enter the business.
Breaking down stereotypes
LATTE was developed by Merit Contractors Association, supported by the Alberta Construction Association (ACA), and is being piloted by the Red Deer Construction Association (RDCA). Through the program, teachers job-shadow at construction companies in order to better understand careers they may not be familiar with. The intent is to give teachers accurate information about careers in the trades and bust the false stereotypes that prevent them from encouraging stu- dents to consider going into construction.
“I think in the past there has been an opinion that lesser-qualified kids who might fall through the cracks had the trades as their second or last option. There has been a really strong focus, not just from educators but also parents, around wanting to see their children go into academics without really having a good sense of what the trades are all about. So that has been what we’re looking at in terms of shifting some of the impressions that are out there,” says Line Porfon, vice-president, government relations, Merit.
Teachers are university graduates who most likely have little awareness of what abilities are actually required by the trades. Consequently, students and teachers alike may believe myths about construction-related jobs, such as that there isn’t any room for advancement, or that the work is low paying and only for those who lack certain skills or have a certain level of intelligence. Those outside the industry are also often unaware of the variety of different positions it offers.
An innovative professional development opportunity, LATTE offers teachers a chance to get to know the facts during two days of hands-on experience with a construction company. While they get to go on site on day two, the first day is spent in a company’s office.
“Construction isn’t what people think it is; it’s much more,” says Gary Gies, executive director, RDCA. “There’s administration, finance, human resources, safety—all kinds of people employed by our companies, and we want to make teachers aware of all the skill sets required.”
LATTE isn’t intended to influence curriculum but rather to spur conversations about working in the trades. For example, after going through the program, a teacher will be better able to make a student who excels at technology aware of the use of building information modelling or 3-D printing in construction, perhaps sparking an interest in the industry.
One of the goals of LATTE is to build long-term partnerships between businesses and schools. As an example, a trigonometry teacher could call on a concrete company, which could help illustrate how trigonometry is used to build a concrete pad. This would provide students with a real-life experience that relates to what they’re learning in the classroom while showing them the kinds of jobs that are available.
Regional construction associations could serve as hubs for this type of connection. “We’re a one-stop shop. Our association has almost 350 members, so what better place for a teacher covering electrical properties in math or physics to call and ask, ‘Do you have an electrical company that might be interested in coming in and talking to us about this?’” Gies says.
LATTE isn’t exactly new; the initiative was successfully piloted in Calgary in the past but never quite got off the ground after its champions retired. Merit is currently working on making youth and teachers more aware of the trades—it invested $1 million last year and will invest another $1.2 million this year in high school programs—and it sees LATTE as one way to accomplish that goal.
“We feel it’s really important that the teachers see what sort of work can be done, where their students might excel, and be able to bring that back into their organizations and talk about what a fantastic thing it is to be a tradesperson,” Porfon says. “For the industry, we are looking for an engaged group of educators and kids who look at our field in a very positive light.”
Want to show teachers what your job is really like while getting young people interested in the industry? Construction companies in central Alberta that want to take part in the LATTE program can contact Gary Gies at 403.346.4846 or firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.