Indigenous Learning, Pathways, Promising Practices

TAP into Trades

Building trades awareness in Canada’s North

The Trades Awareness Program (TAP) brings high school students from the outlying communities of the South Slave Division in the NWT to Aurora College for a hands-on introduction to the trades. Through TAP, students who would not otherwise have exposure to qualified instructors, accredited shops or equipment may be motivated to complete high school, enroll in the College, and pursue careers in the trades, with benefit to both themselves and their communities.

The skilled trades gap continues to widen as more tradespersons retire than join the Red Seal ranks each year. Such is the case in the Northwest Territories, where the largely Indigenous population is located in 33 communities distributed across more than 1.3 million square kilometres of land between the Alberta border and the High Arctic. With the high cost of living and lack of skilled tradespeople in most communities, it may be impossible to find a plumber or an electrician – and the pipes freeze quickly at 40 below.

The trades shortage is exacerbated by the prevalence of oil, natural gas and mining activities in the North that have generated a large demand for skilled workers. Compounding the issue is the fact that schools in the North are small and often lack shop facilities and qualified instructors. As a result, finding ways to raise awareness and expose Northern students to careers in the trades is problematic.

In 2005, the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), Aurora College and the Fort Smith Career Centre formed a partnership called the South Slave Communities’ Learning Network (SSCLN). The SSCLN’s first task was to brainstorm initiatives of mutual interest and potential benefit to the South Slave region and the predominantly Indigenous communities (75% Dene and Métis) of Fort Smith (Chipewyan, Cree, English and French), Hay River (Slavey, English and French), Fort Resolution (Chipewyan), K’atlodeeche First Nation (Slavey), and the fly-in-only community of Lutsel K’e (Chipewyan).

The SSCLN identified career development as a key area of mutual interest, which then led to the creation of the Trades Awareness Program (TAP). TAP began with the intent of providing a hands-on trades experience for students in the South Slave who did not otherwise have exposure to qualified instructors, accredited shops or equipment. The hope is that, through TAP, more and more students will be motivated to complete high school, enrol in the College, and pursue careers in the trades, with potential benefit to both themselves and their communities.

Program description

The Trades Awareness Program (TAP) brings interested Grade 8-12 students from the outlying communities to the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College in Fort Smith to experience a series of short courses in several different trades. For each week of sessions, the partnership organizes transportation, meals and accommodation in the student residences, and instruction for 30-50 students.

After its inception in 2005, TAP quickly expanded from a one-week pilot into a three-part program in which students can earn up to three credits toward high school graduation. The TAP program now includes two on-site options for students: TAP Introductory and TAP Intensive.

First-time participants attend TAP Introductory, which provides students with experiences in a variety of trades. Students spend one full day in each of four different trades. Depending on the availability of instructors and facilities, students have had the opportunity to choose one-day workshops in carpentry, plumbing, cooking, electrical, welding, computer diagnosis and repair, heavy equipment technology, and environment and natural resources technology. In most years, local businesses have also partnered and generously provided more options for students in mechanics, aviation, and hairdressing.

The TAP Introductory schedule keeps students busy and authentically engaged. Each day they are fitted with proper attire, be it steel-toed boots, hard hats, chef uniforms, welding leathers, hair nets, or safety goggles. They learn about such things as basic pipe fitting, extension cord composition and assembly, meal planning and preparation, toilet installation, and how to use tools like hand saws, measuring tapes, band saws and welders. The flight simulator at the flight training centre of the local airline has been a highlight for many. The students who rotate through the cooking option prepare lunch for the entire group of students in the Introductory program for that day. Most students also return to their communities having completed a project or two they can take home – wooden birdhouses, extension cords and metal wind chimes, to name a few.

The Introductory program also includes workplace safety and career development sessions, and an extremely popular Trades Olympics event where students compete against each other in a race that has included tasks such as hammering a nail, sawing a piece of wood, assembling a pipe fitting design, and installing a light switch cover.

Completion of the Introductory program is a prerequisite for students who are interested in returning to attend one or more TAP Intensive sessions. In the Intensive program, students complete a week in one trade of their choice, providing students with more in-depth exposure to that trade. Some students have returned for a third and fourth Intensive session, when space is available, to gain further exposure in a different trade than they did in previous years.

In both programs, students are required to participate in all activities and behave respectfully at all times. They are informed that they are ambassadors for their people, their schools and their communities, and reminded that their behaviour and effort should make their respective families and communities proud. Thankfully, it is a rare case in which a student breaks the rules and must be sent home early.

Students are evaluated by instructors in both the Introductory and Intensive modules by means of an evaluation rubric. The rubric addresses six areas: safety, student effort, punctuality, participation, use of equipment, and task completion/workmanship. Students are able to earn one credit upon successful completion of the Introductory Program and another credit in the Intensive Program. A third credit is also available for work completed by participating students in their home community in preparation for TAP Intensive, and follow-up reporting and personal career planning upon their return.

The delivery of TAP over its 15-year history is attributable to those involved in the SSCLN partnership. Each plays a critical role. The regional school council provides the students and chaperones, organizes transportation (taxis, buses and a chartered flight for Lutsel K’e students) and hires the program coordinator to plan, promote and oversee both TAP modules each year. The Career Centre has access to labour market funding and provides student access to career counsellors during the TAP modules. Aurora College provides the facilities, accommodations and trades instructors for the modules. Other important partners are local businesses that also provide instruction and facilities. The efforts of the SSCLN ensure there is no cost to students who wish to attend TAP.

Measuring success

When TAP rolled out as a pilot in 2005, the SSCLN identified several objectives, including:

  • generating more awareness of trades occupations
  • providing access to accredited shops and instructors
  • offering work-related experience and skills development
  • promoting college programs and residence life
  • networking and building friendships between youth from various communities and cultures
  • encouraging students to be ambassadors and proud representatives of their people, their schools and their communities.

Clearly, the program has provided awareness and access, having introduced hundreds of students to the trades over the past 15 years, but how do we know if it’s making a difference and worth continuing?

Student interest and participation in the program is one measure. Approximately 80-100 students attend TAP each year (in a region of only 1,300 JK-12 students overall). The program set a new participation record this past fall when Aurora College was able to accommodate 53 students in the Introductory program. Most Introductory students return for TAP Intensive.

TAP has proven popular as further evidenced by consistently positive ratings from students, chaperones, and instructors on feedback forms completed and submitted on the last day of each program. The feedback forms encourage facilitators of the program to ensure a quality program every year. The initiative stays fresh and is constantly improving because the feedback is also used to prepare a report with conclusions, commendations, and recommendations for further improvements the following year. An analysis of this historical data found that over 96 percent of students and chaperones who attended over the years indicated the value of the program to be either “very good” or “good.”

The partnership also contracted out a longitudinal review of the program that sought feedback from both past and present students, including those who were in post-secondary school and/or in the workforce. The review’ has garnered further feedback on the long-term value of the program and helped to determine what further improvements might be considered. The study concluded that TAP was both memorable and valuable. TAP helped 81 percent of participants to decide on their future careers. Thirty-nine percent indicated TAP helped them decide to pursue a career in one particular trade. Feedback also confirmed that some students discovered the trades were not for them, which can also be considered a positive outcome from the program.

Due mostly to the Trades Awareness Program and its success, the SSCLN partnership was presented with the Premier’s Award of Excellence for Collaboration.

Both students and their parents have expressed surprise and excitement about how much they learn and the skills they can employ in such a short period of time. The fact that most of the instructors and chaperones are enthusiastic and Indigenous themselves has provided important modelling for students to consider and set similar career goals, especially for our students from the smaller and more remote communities.

We give others the last word on the success of TAP. These quotes were obtained as part of the longitudinal review:

“It was very good, in fact, it was better than I expected,” wrote one student. “I met new people, learned new things and most importantly I had fun. The instructors and chaperones were amazing and I learned a lot. It was useful to me because it opened me up to new opportunities and it gave me ideas of what I want to be in the future.”

“I have always had a fascination with mechanics, and how things work together to make an effective machine. Seeing the shop and tools, meeting the instructors, I realized that I wanted to become a mechanic,” wrote another student.

“The students are told, on the very first day, that they are in a college setting and that they are expected to behave as college students. And, they do!” wrote one instructor. “The reason I take part in and support this program is just this: the students who participate are being given a valuable opportunity to experience a trade and what they can expect while attending a post-secondary institution. While many may not go into a trade, I hope that all of them will attend college or university at some point, and what better way to get a feel for it than in this safe and nurturing environment. As long as this program runs, I will continue to participate and support it.”

“My daughter has learned a lot from the TAP program,” responded one parent. “She cooks a lot at home now and likes to try new things. When she got back from the program she told me she had lots of fun and enjoyed the instructors. I hope she gets to go one last time this coming year. Thanks again.”

Overcoming challenges

The program has been a tremendous success, but it has not been without its challenges.

The North may be small in population, but it’s large in land size. With South Slave communities and schools separated by hundreds of kilometres of highway, and one community accessible only by air, the logistics are nothing short of complicated.

Scheduling both the Introductory and Intensive modules also requires a delicate balance. TAP must be scheduled during appropriate times in the calendars of five schools, when regular Aurora College programs are not in session and students not in the dormitory, when the college instructors are available, and when a suitable coordinator can be contracted. TAP also relies on the ability of local businesses to fit students into their busy schedules. The available dates vary from year to year but have most often occurred in September and June, with at least one Introductory and one Intensive week per calendar year. In the end, it still means taking students out of their normal classroom routines for an entire week, which means catch-up on their return. Students tend not to enrol in their final Grade 12 year, when success on the diploma exams takes precedence.

Maintaining relations and commitment to the initiative in the face of staff turnover has also been a priority. Only one of the three original CEOs remains. Yet the program has been able to continue each year because of its evident value and because of the partnership, commitment, and generous contributions of the South Slave Divisional Education Council, Aurora College, and the Fort Smith Career Centre (Government of the NWT Department of Education, Culture and Employment).

TAP-ping into the future

The SSCLN partnership and its Trades Awareness Program was designed to provide students with greater information and exposure to the trades and college life. TAP gives opportunities for students from across the South Slave to “try out” several trades. TAP has also been instrumental in getting students thinking about the trades as viable career options after high school. But TAP has proven to be more than that.

Justice Murray Sinclair has said, in reference to the legacy of Residential Schools, “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships,” and, “Education is what got us here, and education is what will get us out.” TAP appears to be doing its part in responding to these calls to action. Since students have been scheduled according to their preferred trades, the makeup of each group changes daily, which provides opportunities to socialize with youth from other communities. The meals and social activities further integrate students with food and laughter. The quiet silos of students, clustered by community and language group on day one, completely transform by the end of the week into large group banter and laughter, hugs, exchanges of contact information, and sometimes tears upon departure. In addition to increasing career opportunities for youth, TAP is also helping to break down cultural barriers, strengthen relations, expand comfort zones, and encourage student aspirations.

The skilled trades gap isn’t going away. However, by providing students with an organized gateway to the trades that is both fun and educational, TAP is strengthening relations and creating futures.

Photo: courtesy South Slave Divisional Education Council

First published in Education Canada, June 2020

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Curtis Brown


Curtis Brown is the Superintendent for the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC), was named Canadian Superintendent of the Year (2011) by the Canadian Association of School System Administrators, and is a recipient of the Governor General’s Polar Medal (2019).

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Chris Talbot

Public Affairs Coordinator, South Slave Divisional Education Council

Chris Talbot is the Public Affairs Coordinator for the SSDEC.

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