A group of would-be crane operators has set up camp at NAIT campus this week to secure a spot in the coveted Crane and Hoist Operator Apprenticeship program.

Ben Swagerman is fifth in line, having arrived on Monday with supplies in tow.

This is the second year in a row he has tried to get a spot in the program. After failing to arrive early enough last year, this time he says he showed up prepared for the long wait.

“I've got my comfy lawn chair. I've got a couple books, my pillow, my blanket everything.”

Registration numbers won’t be handed out until Thursday night, and registration itself doesn’t open until Friday but for Swagerman, the wait is worth it.

“If you don’t get into school – if you’re at the back of the line or something you don't get your wage and you're put off for another year until you can get in again,” he said.

Supply doesn’t meet demand

The school has 180 registration spots open for new trainees but the province says more than a thousand apprentices apply each year.

“It’s a very high demand trade in Alberta, and it’s a trade that requires a heavy investment in not only space but capital equipment, and as such, it's a difficult trade to set up, to deliver for and to equip and also to find instructors in,” said Malcolm Haines, NAIT’s dean of trades.

Haines said the registration process didn’t use to be this difficult. But the school’s size and close proximity to some of the biggest projects in the province have increased demand beyond available spaces, he added.

Dave Pepler

Dave Pepler said limiting the number of spots in the program might mean workers who weren't able to complete their training be pressured to operate cranes without the necessary experience or qualifications. (CBC)

Dave Pepler, who drove in from Calgary to join the line, said many interested workers aren’t able to get the time off work to line up for days or a week for the chance of a spot.

That makes him worry that people who don’t make it into the program might be pressured to operate cranes without the necessary experience or qualifications.

“A lot of guys say they feel comfortable with a crane, but they might not and without the proper training there might be some safety related items that go along with that.”

Pepler thinks there needs to be more space for apprentices to meet that demand.

“It definitely needs more support from Alberta to the federal government, anything else to get these guys properly trained.”

Hancock says registration might be the issue

But Alberta Premier Dave Hancock says the current program sizes are adequate to meet demands.

“We have a very strong apprenticeship program in the province,” he said Tuesday.

Dave Hancock

When told about the long line ups, Premier Dave Hancock commended the would-be crane operators for making their education a priority. He suggested registration, rather than program size, was the problem. (CBC)

We have the student spaces that we need, and when we don’t have them – when the colleges and technical institutes say we need more – we make more.”

When told about the long lines currently at NAIT, Hancock suggested it may be the result of a registration issue rather than a problem with the number of spots available.

The real problem is people not willing to line up and wait for a spot in the programs, he suggested.

“It’s not a question of not having the opportunity the opportunity is there,” he said.

He commended those who chose to line up for days to enroll in the program, saying that dedication shows good priorities.

“It’s great to see students that are eager to advance their education, who are willing to do what they believe they need to do to get ahead,” he said, adding “that’s the type of enthusiasm you want to see in the trades.”

With Files from CBC's Travis McEwan and Gareth Hampshire