A program offered at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, provides an immersive training experience to high school students interested in a career in trades. They take a full term of training in the trade of their choice and receive credits both for their high school graduation and toward their trade certification.
Classic thinking says: Students with strong academics go to university and those who don’t do well in school go into the trades. The Faculty of Trades and Technology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) seeks to dispel that myth and elevate trades to its rightful place alongside traditional academics at Canada’s only polytechnic university.
Challenging that misconception isn’t easy. Trades are often seen as dirty, back-breaking grunt work.
The truth is that academics play a huge role in the day-to-day work of most skilled tradespeople. Beyond the hands-on skills of each trade, students often use lots of math, and often physics, to complete complex tasks. Effective communication skills are also a must-have, so students are expected to have a solid foundation in English. And like other professionals, tradespeople use a host of soft skills to get their work done, including critical thinking, problem solving, time management, and creativity.
Through our program, Youth Train in Trades, we hope to counter the stigma surrounding skilled trades for counsellors, parents, and students. Youth Train in Trades provides opportunities beyond the ordinary shop class to high school students who want to explore a career in trades. Through the university, students receive an education in the trade of their choice, all while still in high school.
What is youth train in trades?
Youth Train in Trades is a trilateral partnership between KPU, local school districts, and the B.C.-focused Industry Training Authority (ITA), which funds the program. It offers high school students an opportunity to learn a trade, while earning credits that count toward their high school diploma and Level 1 of their trades training.
The Youth Train in Trades portfolio is administered by the Associate Dean of Trades and Technology (my office and my team) at KPU. Through regular Trades Training Partnership meetings, the school district representatives come to KPU to discuss schedules, questions, supports, and other information. There are also guest speakers to inform the school districts about things such as student rights and responsibilities.
Currently, KPU has agreements for Youth Train in Trades programs with ten B.C. school districts. For the participating school districts, these programs open up a world beyond traditional academics. KPU’s Faculty of Trades and Technology offers six Youth Train in Trades programs: Automotive, Carpentry, Masonry, Millwright, Plumbing and Piping, and Welding.
The program is relatively low cost for students, as high schools cover the tuition and fees. Students are only responsible for purchasing textbooks and any required personal protective equipment. Mark Flynn, Principal of Career Education at Surrey Schools, says, “We don’t offer programs in-house where students can actually do technical training. In the school system, for it to be viable, you would have to run a full class of 20 to 24 students. If we had too small a number, we couldn’t run the program. With KPU we can adjust. There’s more flexibility.”
Flynn adds, “KPU are easy to work with because they’ve been involved with this for so long they understand what the school districts need to make it work and what our students need to be successful in a program like this.”
Welding and Millwright, in particular, offer unique opportunities for high school students interested in the trades. “They’re really popular in our district. There’s always an interest in the programs, especially for Welding,” said Flynn.
Secondary schools lack the physical space and specialist equipment needed to offer trades programs like Welding or Millwright on their own. Welders fuse metal using flame-cutting, brazing and soldering equipment to form a permanent bond, while millwrights install, align, maintain, inspect, repair, overhaul and dismantle machinery and heavy mechanical equipment.
Getting a head start on trades training
As mentioned, KPU offers six Youth Train in Trades programs. Depending on the program, they run between 21 and 30 weeks. Most are hybrid programs, with the bulk of the program taught at the student’s high school by a KPU instructor and several weeks taught at the KPU Tech campus.
Piping, Millwright and Welding are all delivered at KPU Tech in blended classrooms, where high school students learn alongside adult fee-paying students.
A Red Seal endorsement can open up a wide range of career paths that value the fundamental knowledge and experience gained through a trades education.
KPU brings the school districts and KPU instructors together to clearly define who’s teaching what. The ITA curriculum defines these as “Line Items”. The instructors negotiate who is teaching which lines to ensure all the required ITA curriculum is covered.
Once enrolled in Youth Train in Trades, students are 100 percent committed to their respective trade. Unless done on their own time, students won’t be taking other high school courses alongside the program. Youth Train in Trades is a dual-credit program, so students are earning high school as well as post-secondary credits.
“Most of our students are in Grade 12 when they do the program,” says Flynn. “So, they’re still going forward with their Dogwood [high school diploma], and now, because the market’s so good, they’re walking out into well-paying jobs. They’re job ready. It’s just a great stepping stone.”
Students in the program learn from skilled, Red Seal-endorsed KPU instructors, using the ITA curriculum. The Red Seal program sets common standards to assess the skills of tradespeople across Canada. To reach Red Seal level in welding, for example, they will have completed their Welding Level 1 and Level 2 apprenticeships, then, depending on their life experiences and employment status, their Welding Level 3 or Level B before taking their Red Seal exam. High school students who take Welding Foundations at KPU through Youth Train in Trades earn the equivalent of a Welding Level 1 and Level 2 apprenticeship.
At KPU, a Millwright student gets the equivalent of all the theory that a Level 1 apprentice would get, says Brian Myette, Millwright instructor and department chair. “Basically, a student who graduates from Millwright is going to get about 50 percent theory, 50 percent practical training,” he says. “And we have a simulated work environment. Why? Because they’re getting credit for practical hours towards their apprenticeship and Level 1 as well.”
The program provides more than specific trade skills. Students also acquire important work skills.
“We recognize that when the students first come in, it’s going to be a big transition for them,” says Myette. “The people studying trades can range in age from 17 up. So, it’s a mix. It’s very diverse. So, they come in, and they’re with many more mature students. That environment means there’s not as much horseplay. They decide it’s time to get serious, so it’s a very good learning environment.”
The benefits of the Youth Train in Trades program are not lost on Jaeden Wildenboer, a KPU Youth Train in Trades graduate and Red Seal-certified welder.
“Honestly, I don’t know what else I’d be doing besides this if I didn’t have that opportunity,” says Wildenboer. “With the skill set and the confidence that it built for me, it opened up so much.”
Most students take Youth Train in Trades in their final semester of high school. For Wildenboer, that meant making some hard decisions.
“When I first had the choice, I did second guess it because I wanted to have my last year of high school with my friends,” he says. “But now that I look back at it, I definitely made the right decision. I’m further ahead than anyone else that I can think of and it’s all because of Youth Train in Trades.”
With his passion ignited, Wildenboer continued to work in welding, gaining valuable hours as he waited for his chance to return for more training. Wildenboer landed a job within a month of graduating from Youth Train in Trades. “That’s only because I wanted to take a month off because we were doing a family vacation that summer. Otherwise it would have been sooner,” he adds.
“I knew I wanted to go back for my B level,” says Wildenboer. “I got my Red Seal when I was 19. I’ve just been working ever since.” Wildenboer says he frequently gets job offers from other companies. “I mean, I don’t even ask them for a job, they just come to me and offer it. I have a great job.”
Now 21, Wildenboer is a big advocate of Youth Train in Trades and has encouraged several friends to take the program.
“Honestly, if I had the chance to do it again, I wouldn’t hesitate,” he says. “I thought it would be a huge step being obviously one of the youngest people in the whole university. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The way the teachers had it all lined up, and all of the processes and everything we did there, it just made me overall a more confident person.”
Beyond the trades themselves, a Red Seal endorsement can open up a wide range of career paths that value the foundational knowledge and experience gained through a trades education, including being a business owner, supervisor, or trades instructor. As educators, we need to make sure that trades are seen by students as a viable career path, not a “backup plan.” Tradespeople require the same commitment and perseverance to succeed as anyone in any other profession.
Thanks to the support of ITA, Youth Train in Trades ensures students aren’t limited to what the high school has to offer and opens up a broader range of career opportunities.
Photo: courtesy KPU / Matt Law
First published in Education Canada, June 2020