A slippery path to skilled trades

‘Stalled apprentices’ can be sidelined by many barriers

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on December 22, 2011

Second in a three-part series

The barriers for apprentices completing their training in-province and trying to achieve journeyperson status can fall under the purview of government, unions, employers or schools.

Some barriers are personal ones.

At the Office to Advance Women Apprentices, executive director Karen Walsh has met apprentices seeking work who are unwilling to move within the province to find it.

“Some people take a trade because in the area they’re living that’s what the college is offering,” she said, referring to all provincial institutions with trades programs, and not just the publicly funded College of the North Atlantic (CNA).

In saying so she is making two points.

First, that people unwilling to relocate typically don’t finish their training, but instead find work in other areas of the economy or wind up unemployed. Students need to be aware of that going in, Walsh explained.

Second, the end result of schooling is important. Walsh said students need to ask themselves what they want their lives to be like once they enter the workforce.

CNA spells out some considerations in its academic calendar.

For example, heavy equipment operators can “expect the work to be seasonal with a considerable amount of overtime during peak times and layoffs during the slower months.”

For electricians, “the work environment could range from clean open areas to dirty, cramped spaces.”

“To be fair to our students that come in, we try to give a fair description of the expectations,” Robin Walters, CNA’s administrator of academic projects, told The Telegram.

“So, our potential students are aware of what the demands are, what the expectations are, what their potential job opportunities would be.”

Speaking from an office at the college’s Seal Cove campus, Walters said CNA, because of its government funding, offers programming tailored to address the skilled labour needs of the province.

The curriculum is designed by the government, in consultation with industry. What trades programs will be offered where remains a decision for the board of governors, following a yearly internal review.

“We go through an intensive academic planning process every year that’s a very detailed and extensive process,” he said.

In recent years — the “past six, seven years,” said Walters — industrial trades programming has been about numbers. The provincial government has increased seats in the trades programs by 50 per cent to meet major project needs.

This has meant heavy investment in the college’s skilled trades suites and other resources.

The result has been more skilled trades students. It has also meant more people needing to find qualifying apprenticeship work.


Lack of journeypersons

“Once you step outside of school, it’s a whole different world,”  Sherry Hunt, an apprentice heavy equipment operator, told The Telegram recently.

Hunt is not a CNA graduate — she attended a private training institution. The mother of a teenage son, she was working in food service just two years ago for about $10 an hour, fighting to stay financially solvent. She decided to go back to school to train for a position that would offer her more.

“It’s what I wanted and I followed it. I’d done all the research on it. And in the research there was so many people retiring within the next few years and there’s such a demand coming back in for the Hebron and the Long Harbour and all these places,” she said.

She went to the government to get some funding to help her through her studies. She was then claiming employment insurance for a time, before landing her first job as an apprentice.

Finding a space wasn’t easy. Heavy equipment operating was not an apprenticeable, red seal trade until October 2010.

Since workers in the trade for decades — workers who might typically be journeypersons — had no requirement to be tested and certified for that status, there are few journeypersons available to sign off on apprentice hours.

Hunt’s first apprentice position ended abruptly for that reason.

“We actually had Sherry on a site as a heavy equipment operator and their journeyperson left,” said Walsh.

“So, her placement had to end because there was no journeyperson on site for supervision.”

Hunt has gone to the Office to Advance Women Apprentices for help in finding work for credit.

She has hit a wall — having applied to “anywhere from 50 to 60 companies,” with no luck in finding work under a journeyperson. She admits some of those applications have been made for positions she has not yet been trained for, like snowclearing, as well as positions where the employers have been seeking higher-level apprentices and journeypersons.

She has considered leaving the province for qualifying work, but would rather not considering her family, her life, is here. “Most of the guys I went to school with have gone away,” she said.

In cases like Hunt’s, “it’s not that the stigma is there I’m not going to hire a woman heavy equipment operator. It’s the supply and demand,” said Walsh.


No accreditation assistance

Hunt, while eager, is early in her training. She is also in a problematic trade if you’re seeking journeyperson status, as a heavy equipment operator.

Danielle Wells, on the other hand, did her initial schooling in 2004-2005. She has had work experience since with employers including Metal World Inc., Harvey and Co. Ltd. and OMI Services Ltd. (of DF Barnes Group), bringing her through to 2009.

A photo of Wells at work was featured in an Oct. 26, 2006 edition of The Telegram.

Wells took her journeyperson exam and failed. This is not uncommon for apprentices. They are able to re-take the exam, after a little more training.

Yet in seeking more time in as an apprentice, Wells suddenly hit a wall, “big time.”

A few months on and she decided to take a job in the kitchen at St. Patrick’s Mercy Home. She said a job beyond six weeks — an offer giving her credit, with the least bit security — and she’d be welding again.

“I’m checking in with (my former employers) every other week,” she told The Telegram, adding she also searches public job postings daily.

She will have been employed with kitchen work for two years come March.

“I just can’t find a job,” she said, noting journeypersons are preferred, even if they are new to the province.

Now Wells is facing a new obstacle to employment in her chosen trade.

“My tickets expired and you need your welding tickets in order to work with a company,” she said.

These certifications, are permits  for various forms of welding work.

“You come out of school, you have two tickets. That gets your foot in the door,” she said.

“When I went to OMI, there’s all different positions of welding and they tested us and they paid for the tickets. It’s good for two years, then it expires and you have to rewrite it. And it can cost you. With me, for the flux core it’s $1,000 and for the stick ticket it’s $350.

“As a single mom, I can’t afford to pay that.”

Journeypersons have their recertification costs covered under employment insurance if they are stuck between jobs, Wells said.

While she has been offered the cost of her tickets if she can secure a job, she cannot secure a job without her tickets — a catch-22 scenario.

With a 17-year-old and a 14-year-old at home, she has put off making a move to Alberta.

She has considered travel to and from job sites in Labrador, only to find housing a problem.

She continues to seek work as a welder and is planning an appeal to the carpenters and millwrights union this week. Millwrights’ work can include some welding. Being with a union would give her a shot at getting work at Long Harbour and Hebron, she said.

She claimed the ironworkers and pipefitters are not accepting apprentices, unless they are grandfathered in.

If she can’t get in with a union, Wells says she is likely Alberta-bound.

“But, I would love to get something here,” she said.


Tomorrow: more on apprenticeships and skilled labour from those who have made the move away, and from employers.