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Jobs of the Future: Wielding a welding whip works for this aspiring boilermaker

Tomorrow's Trades program aims to replenish the trades pipeline with the next generation of skilled workers
Welding (Tomorrow's Trades program)
(Supplied photo)

Mere weeks into her first year of psychology studies at university, Jenna Shambrook felt something was amiss.

Sitting in class one day last September, listening to a lecture, the 19-year-old Sudbury resident remembers thinking, "What am I doing here?"

The prospect of having to repay tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, eventually having to write a master's thesis, graduating into an uncertain job market, while trying to make ends meet working three part-time jobs all culminated in a moment of clarity.

"I quite literally walked out of my class, to the parking lot and called the Ministry of Labour," said Shambrook. "I said, 'I have no idea how to get into an apprenticeship, but what do I do?'"

The next day she was on the phone with Ryan Forigo, the Sudbury-based construction liaison with the Tomorrow's Trades program, in what became a life-changing career decision, one that she's most grateful to have made.

Three days after withdrawing from university, Shambrook was sitting with new classmates and being prepped by Forigo on what lay ahead for the free 12-week pre-apprenticeship job-readiness program.

Hosted by the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, Tomorrow's Trades was launched last fall as a pilot program in Sudbury, Ottawa, Hamilton, and London. The program's second intake is coming up this spring with registration now open.

"It was one of those decisions where I either jump in, fully commit and hope for the best, or keep doing what I was doing," said Shambrook.

Now 20, she has found her fit with a boilermaker's apprenticeship.

Instead of lugging textbooks around campus, she now handles a welding whip.

"I realized very quickly that I definitely learn better, easier and faster with my hands than I do listening to somebody talk."

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Of the first intake into the program that began last September and finished up just before Christmas, seven of the eight participants — including Shambrook —transitioned into apprenticeships.

Raised by a single mom with no family legacy in the trades, Shambrook described her initial level of mechanical proficiency as "super basic" with small fix-it jobs and renovations around the house.

"One of the coolest parts about welding, to me, is it's almost like an art. When you put a really good weld down, it's an immediate payoff. You see your work right in front of you, you see how well it's done. Every single day, I can see the improvement."

It's those personal stories that provide inspiration for Forigo, a former Cambrian College instructor and a Red Seal carpenter.

"I'm always enthusiastic about any training program helping young adults get into trades and find a purpose in life."

For decades, there's been a chronic shortage of skilled trades workers in Ontario as the province's workforce has been gradually aging out and into retirement. In the past, the stereotypical recruiting base was predominately male, mechanically inclined 20-somethings.

Tomorrow's Trades seeks to broaden that scope by reaching out to women, Indigenous and Black youth, disabled persons, newcomers to Canada, youth at risk, veterans and those from racialized communities.

Forigo explained they're not necessarily targetting a specific demographic or age group, but he has made an extra effort to connect with First Nation communities.

"If you want a career in the trades, this is the place for you."

There are no prerequisites to sign up — just be the minimum age of 18, be able to attend daily training sessions, and show a willingness to be coached and learn about the trades.

With the support of local trade union halls and contractors like TESC, Forigo said they're serving up a "buffet of trades" in potential careers in boilermaking, carpentry, plumbing and pipefitting, ironworking and electrical and others, areas where there is a demand for skilled workers. Training takes place at multiple trade union halls across the city.

After a week of reflection, participants pick the trade that best resonates with them.

A career in the trades offers a rewarding and lucrative profession, sometimes exceeding $100,000 for journeypersons three to five years into their careers with good benefits and a pension.

And there's a huge variety of work and opportunities to travel and work at different project sites, Forigo said.

For instance, those working in the trowel trades aren't necessary typecast to one particular job.

Participants in last fall's program heard a presentation from one individual in Ottawa who's working as a stonemason, involved in the restoration and repair work on Parliament Hill. Part of the cool factor is the application of time-honoured hand techniques to restore the historic block of Gothic buildings to their original state.

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To put each participant in a position to succeed, Forigo said they're pulling out all the stops with a paid-to-train format.

There's a daily stipend and vouchers to get geared up in work boots, clothing, hardhats and personal protective equipment gear. For those coming in from outside the city, transportation arrangements can be made.

Perhaps most imperative, Forigo said, is having a support network in place. Oftentimes, when the formal training ends, so do all the connections.

That's where local contractors and trade unions have rallied together. Shambrook was paired up with Nicole (Nikki) Lavoie, a welding instructor with Boilermakers Union Local 128.

Under Lavoie's guidance at the boilermakers' training centre on Lasalle Boulevard, Shambrook has learned the basics of welding, rigging and hoisting, and how to work safely at heights and in confined spaces.

Shambrook said she's found a welcoming and nurturing environment with mentors who've taken a personal interest in seeing her succeed.

Lavoie, a 20-year boilermaker veteran, who grew up as a self-described tomboy, trained as a welder and worked as a mechanic, patiently biding her time before joining the boilermakers union.

Getting involved as a trainer and partaking in the Tomorrow's Trades program presented an opportunity for Lavoie to gradually ease out the old-school culture and attitude that pervaded the trades in her early years.

"I wish it existed when I got into the trades," said Lavoie.

"I think she's Superwoman," added Sambrook. "It's kinda cool to be sitting with someone who paved the way for me in a sense.

"I don't think there's been a single day when Nikki has ever made me feel stupid or put me down. She's gone above and beyond to make sure I know what I'm doing and I know how to do it safely and right the first time."

Boilermakers typically work on industrial-sized pressure vessels, such as boilers, storage tanks, furnaces, penstocks, stacks, and duct work. These tradespeople can find themselves working at refineries, steel mills, pulp and paper plants, hydroelectric generating stations and nuclear power plants.

A boilermaker's apprenticeship usually lasts four years, including 6,600 hours of on-the-job training. It can be a physical and strenuous job, sometimes working under adverse conditions, but the pay is certainly an inducement.

On her first job, Shambrook will make roughly $28 an hour, double time on weekends and after eight hours. A journeyman's rate comes in around $49 to $50 an hour, something she wouldn't have fathomed a few months earlier.

"That's one of the things that really blew my mind, the amount of money that's in the trades."

In reflecting on her new career, Shambrook considers herself fortunate to have been accepted into the program. The support she's received has given her the confidence to follow through to the finish of her apprenticeship and to obtain her Red Seal certification.

"I'm not nervous at all," Shambrook said. "I'm just ready to go."

Registration for the second intake this spring is open now, with an expanded space for 24 applicants from the Sudbury-Manitoulin area. Forigo said they'll be divided into two cohorts of 12, separated by four weeks. The training start date for the first cohort is the third week of April. Forigo said they want to get to the point of accepting "endless applications."