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More Canadians are finding their tickets to middle class in the trades

Opinion: With starting wages for tradespeople in the $80,000 to $100,000 range, fewer young people think an expensive bachelor’s or master’s program is the route to success.

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“Apprentices are walking into jobs paying 80 to a 100 thousand a year.”

That’s how the head of the B.C. Institute of Technology’s department of steel trades, construction and the environment, Mike McKoryk, describes the fortunes of most of the men and increasingly women who go through his training programs.

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“Most apprenticeships are three years long: After that they’re making $125,000 to $150,000 a year,” says McKoryk. “Right now things are pretty busy: There is 98 per cent job placements for graduates.”

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And almost all come through with no student debt.

Specifically, McKoryk is describing the future of apprentices in iron-working. But prospects are similarly bright for the hundreds of people who each year go through the apprenticeship programs in boiler-making, metal fabrication and marine fitting.

These are the kinds of workers building the Pattullo Bridge replacement, the Site C dam, LNG pipelines, Seaspan’s ships and Metro Vancouver’s many residential towers. They’re just the tip of the trades’ iceberg, a vast field that employs more than 2.8 million Canadians, and which more people are recognizing is a ticket to the middle class.

There are signs of waning devotion to North Americans’ fixation on four-year college or university degrees. Polls show fewer young people think an expensive bachelor’s or master’s program is the ultimate route to financial and lifestyle success.

More people are questioning the value of going into debt for degrees that don’t always open a lot of vocational doors.

There is no doubt many can still gain a long-term financial advantage by attending a quality institute of higher education, but there are also signs of unease with that over-promoted dream.

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A recent University of Chicago study found 56 per cent of Americans now believe that earning a four-year college degree isn’t worth the cost, compared with 40 per cent a decade ago. And a new analysis of earnings from almost 4,000 U.S. colleges discovered one-in-four attendees earn less income than high-school graduates.

New York University business professor Scott Gallagher is among the many prominent voices urging parents not to “worry about children who opt for woodworking versus computer science.” It’s time to celebrate men and women, Gallagher says, who want to “build, create and repair.”

The professor admires how some European countries give prominence and respect to people in the trades. One of his charts shows half of Denmark’s labour market is composed of apprentices, followed by one-third in Britain and Germany, and one-quarter in Australia.

That ratio falls dramatically in the U.S., where people in apprentice programs make up only one-in-33 members of the labour force. McKoryk suggests Canada’s ratio might be somewhat higher than the U.S.

While the Canadian educational scene is different from the U.S., in large part because the cost of a public college or university isn’t as onerous, there are clear signs more Canadians are choosing the trades.

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In 2022, according to Statistics Canada, there was 10 to 30 per cent growth in people entering trades devoted to such things as electricity, refrigeration, tile-setting, landscape horticulture, heavy-duty mechanics, aircraft maintenance, construction, air conditioning and fabricated metal manufacturing.

Mike
“There is 98 per cent job placement for graduates,” says Mike McKoryk, beard, head of the B.C. Institute of Technology’s department of steel trades, construction and the environment. Photo by Scott McAlpine /sun

What kind of life can one expect as a tradesperson, in addition to an often high salary, a typically debt-free education, quick hiring and employers eager to pay to upgrade your skills.

Old stereotypes are dying about how the trades require more brawn than brain.

“Careers in the trades aren’t exclusively physical. They’re not all about heavy-lifting and dirty hands,” says an online BCIT article titled: Nine cool things you never knew about working in trades.

Although more than nine out of 10 workers in B.C.’s trades continue to be men, McKoryk says there’s been a significant shift in the past five years. Women now make up more than one-in-five people in McKoryk’s programs, suggesting the trades are more effective at drawing in women than the so-called helping professions, such as psychology, social work and teaching, are in attracting men.

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Many women entering BCIT to earn their trades’ ticket, known as a Red Seal, are single parents, McKoryk says. Like men they’re eager to support families with opening wages in the $40-to-$50-per-hour range, which is more than the starting salaries of many with bachelor’s degrees.

With trades going digital, heavy-lifting is less required. The motto for BCIT and its roughly 44,000 students, which also include large cohorts pursuing technology degrees, is: “Education for a complex world.”

Employers aren’t only seeking tradespeople who know their particular craft, says McKoryk. They’re also zealously on the lookout for apprentices (and non-certified tradespeople) with organizational, people and leadership skills.

Even though such so-called soft skills are starting to outweigh the traditional demand for physical stamina, McKoryk does caution: “You’ve got to be mentally tough” in many of the trades. “A construction site can be cold and rainy for days on end.”

Tradespeople also need to be up-to-speed on safety, since worksites can be hazardous. Compared with three decades ago, the good news is employers are going out of their way to avoid injuries, says McKoryk. Among other things they’re keen to avoid huge insurance costs.

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And the trades aren’t for everyone. Even though the requirements to get into most trade programs at BCIT is Grade 10 math and Grade 12 English, McKoryk says there are many people in Canada signing up for the typically half-year certificate programs who struggle with the language component.

Still, the opportunities are enormous. And not just for young adults. McKoryk knows many people who obtained a bachelor’s degree and then decided, later in life, there is more opportunity in a trade.

That includes one of McKoryk’s best friends. The man in his 40s has been toiling in B.C.’s often unpredictable film industry. This year he entered one of BCIT’s trade programs.

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