British Columbia·Pomp and Pressure

Why high school grads might want to choose a career in the trades

Despite social pressures, university isn't for everyone — there are plenty of reasons to go into the trades, including reduced financial burden, engaging work, and employment opportunities.

Despite social pressures, university isn't for everyone — there are plenty of reasons to go into the trades

Caleb Showers-Cornell demonstrates some of the equipment in a lab used as part of the electrical trades program at the B.C. Institute of Technology. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Caleb Showers-Cornell may not have been an obvious candidate for a career in the trades — at his high school in East Vancouver, he was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. It's advanced placement, typically for students with academic ambitions.

"It's all geared toward getting you ready for university — exposing you to the stresses of university," said Showers-Cornell, 19.

But that experience is part of what led him to take a hard turn away from university, and go into the electrical trades program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).

High school graduates pondering their next steps in B.C. face a dizzying set of challenges.

There's the pressure from family and peers to pursue a "prestigious" career, the sky-high cost of housing in the larger cities, the cost of post-secondary education that leaves many graduates burdened with debt, and the difficulty of deciding what might be an interesting — if not lucrative — way to spend one's life.

Once Showers-Cornell determined he didn't want to go to university, knowing what he would find engaging and fulfilling came easy; he's been fascinated by electricity since he was a small child.

"It's right on the edge of science and magic," he said.

According to a report last year by the provincial agency, Work B.C., There will be 2,380 new job openings for electricians over the next nine years, putting the occupation in ninth place among the trades.

Topping the list is cooks, which will see more than 11,000 job openings by 2028, followed by auto mechanics, carpenters and hair stylists.

According to Jason Leber, manager of youth programs with the Industry Training Authority B.C., following one's passion is a great ingredient to a successful and satisfying career. And some trades offer technical and intellectually challenging work that rivals anything found in a university setting.

According to Work B.C., there will be 2,380 new electrician jobs between 2018 and 2028, placing it ninth on the list of expected demand for trades. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We know that there's about 10,000 jobs available each year in trades, and so we try to get at least 5,000 youth engaged in a trades program while they're still in school," said Leber, adding that 40 to 50 per cent of jobs are filled by young people entering the workforce.

Leber said programs like Youth Explore Trades Skills, which exposes students to different trades while they're still in school, or the programs offered by school districts that let students work toward a career in trades while still completing high school, help point people in the right direction.

Less financial stress

AT BCIT, Showers-Cornell found an education plan that came without the financial burden faced by university students.

His four-year program at BCIT includes 10 weeks of classroom work each year and 40 weeks of full time, paid work in the industry. Trades programs also benefit from government subsidies.

Caleb Showers-Cornell says he'll finish his education free of debt — something many university students can't say. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"I don't mean to brag when I say I will leave this program with no debt," said Showers-Cornell.

Reduced stigma

Showers-Cornell said there was an assumption from his family and classmates that he would go to university. His family was understanding — and perhaps relieved to avoid some of the financial burden — but he would often have to explain his decision to enter the trades.

"There's this huge misconception that you have to be stupid to be a tradesperson," he said, "that everyone who works in the trades is dirty, blue collar, very masculine, very unruly, gruff — mean even — uncivilized."

Ted Simmons, chief instructor, has been teaching electrical trades at BCIT for 30 years. For him, the industry is changing by the second, but the stigma has taken longer to burn out.

"I think a lot more people look to trades as a viable career, whereas before, if you looked to trades, it was somehow lower class almost," said Simmons. "That's pretty much gone now."

Ted Simmons, chief instructor of the electrical trades program at BCIT, says stereotypes about who goes into trades have lessened in the 30 years he's been teaching. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He said the technology is changing so fast, you need to have excellent technical skills to do the job — and there's always lots of work.

Showers-Cornell is optimistic about the demand for electricians, as people shift away from fossil fuels.

"Everyone's asking for a car charger, everyone's asking for solar panels," he said. "There's always work for us."

This story is part of a series call Pomp and Pressure, which examines the stresses and choices high school students in B.C. are facing when it comes to post-secondary education. It airs Sept. 3-6 on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition and On The Coast, with features on CBC Vancouver News at 6 and cbc.ca/bc.


Do you have more to add to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story linked to a youth trades program that is not run by Industry Training Authority B.C.
    Sep 06, 2019 1:21 PM PT

About the Author

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker

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