Grade 12 students Noelan Sigurdsson and Nathan Gibson at work in the SOY Boot Camp. MIKE BALSOM

The Tools in the Trades Boot Camp rolled into Fonthill’s E.L. Crossley Secondary School October 27, bringing aspiring apprentices together with experienced tradespeople and business owners hoping to meet potential new recruits.

The boot camps are being offered by Support Ontario Youth (SOY), a federally registered charitable organization formed about two years ago. SOY aims to advise apprentices on all aspects of their training. They also provide them with mentoring to help them enter the skilled trades confidently and to ensure their apprenticeship continues efficiently.

A cadre of electricians and carpenters arrived with the SOY trailer at Crossley to meet with students who had pre-registered for the day-long program.

Calli Zwierschke, Crossley’s Construction Technology/Electrical teacher, got word through the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN) that the boot camp was available. Her students applied via the SOY website and after completing questionnaires about their employability skills and personality traits, they were accepted for the session.

“They were extremely excited,” she said about the days leading up to the arrival of the trailer.

“There were so many questions in the class daily. They were inquiring about what would happen, and the details, even though it was weeks ahead. They were thrilled, to say the least.”

Each student started the day unboxing their new collection of professional tools and arranging them on their brand new leather tool belt. Every participant in each SOY boot camp receives a set of tools worth at least $250 specific to that day’s session.

The 30 students were split into two groups, with one beginning the day learning soft skills, and the other working on hands-on tasks alongside industry professionals. After lunch, the groups switched roles.

Grade 12 student Maddy Davidson of Fenwick was constructing circuits under the watchful eye of instructor Josh Wells of SOY.

“We did some wiring,” she said, “learning from people with experience and seeing how they like it, and how they got involved with it, and where they are so we can see where we can be in the future.”

Grade 12 students Maddy Davidson and Preston Darling. MIKE BALSOM

Davidson said she’s always been a hands-on person and is often the only girl in her auto and woodworking classes. In her fourth year of taking electricity at Crossley, she finds that she not only enjoys the work but she also is getting quite good at it.

She is hoping to enrol in a college apprenticeship program next September, and said the opportunity to meet tradespeople and employers in the field gave her some great information about how to move forward in a career as an electrician.

For his part, Wells enjoyed working with the hopeful apprentices.

“A lot of them are engaged,” he said. “They’re all happy when they open up the boxes, it’s like Christmas for them. When they actually start doing the projects, they stop and ask questions. When they start asking questions you can tell when you’re hitting home for them.”

Davidson was working with classmate Preston Darling, also from Fenwick.

“We did circuits in class,” explained Darling, “but some of the stuff we’re doing here is different. And they’re talking later about skills for resumes and applying for jobs, which is really awesome, to help you set up for the future.”

During lunch the students met with Mike Butler, owner of Amplistic Inc, a Stoney Creek electrical contractor. He went over job prospects with his company and what he looked for in an employee. Jared Rogers, a program director with an organization called Super Commuting, spoke about temporary opportunities his organization could offer for students to immerse themselves in the trades as well.

Though he wasn’t considering pursuing an apprenticeship after graduation, Darling says exposure to professionals such as Wells, Butler and Rogers may make him reconsider his options.

“There’s a lot of awesome opportunities here,” he said. “These guys seem like they’ve got stuff on their mind. And it’s great to get some connections with some people in the trades if I ever think of doing this as a career.”

According to RBC Thought Leadership, a think-tank arm of the national bank, some 700,000 skilled tradespeople in Canada are expected to retire by 2028. Meanwhile, an outdated perception of the trades has hindered the recruitment of new apprentices to replace them.

As well, it is forecast that the country will face a shortage of at least 10,000 workers in nationally recognized Red Seal trades in the next five years. And digital disruption will mean that 25 percent of Canada’s four million tradespeople will need to upgrade their skills within that same time period.

SOY Executive Director Stephen Sell was on site as well. He explained that Boot Camps are being run across the province until the end of next March. They are offered to high school students as well as to adults, where there is often a waiting list after registration quickly fills up.

In its two years, SOY has gathered the support and cooperation of some 143 employers across the province, registered 200 new apprentices, and awarded some 40 scholarships in nine different trades. Besides construction/electrical, the boot camps are offered in automotive repair, millwright, plumbing and horticulture.

Zwierschke was overjoyed to see her students immersed in the experience.

“For them to get that step ahead,” she said, “and to be that much closer to finding employability skills and employers, they’re way ahead of the game than I ever was.”

Support Ontario Youth will be back in Niagara, working with the Niagara Catholic District School Board in February. For more information, visit supportontarioyouth.ca