Toronto

Expo uses virtual reality to encourage more students to consider a trade

A three-day interactive expo, called Future Building, running Tuesday to Thursday at Mississauga’s International Centre, is introducing more than 9,000 central Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 to the trades.

Industry needs new blood as 87,000 of the province's half a million construction workers due to retire

The Ontario Construction Secretariat started Future Building to introduce students, aboriginal youth, youth at risk and adults in career transition to the building and construction industry. (Future Building)

A three-day interactive event, called Future Building, running Tuesday to Thursday at Mississauga's International Centre is aiming to introduce more than 9,000 central Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 to the trades.

Virtual reality simulators at the event will allow students to use a crane from three floors up, and try out painting and welding as well as several other construction careers.

The annual event attracts thousands of students from across central Ontario. (Future Building)

"People think that … you get into the trades and you're stuck with a hammer and a drill for the next 30 years, but that's actually not the case," said Robert Bronk, CEO of the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), the organization behind the event.

"There's a number of career options."

Getting more young people involved in the trades is all the more important considering 87,000 of Ontario's 500,000 construction workers are expected to retire by 2027, according to the OCS.

As that happens, the need for workers is continuing to grow, according to Bronk.

"The industry is booming, and there's been a need for quite a while now," he said. "It's really important for the economy that we get these young people plugged into the system and connected with good-paying, highly skilled jobs."

Construction misconceptions

Students will also have the chance to speak with exhibitors to hear their real-life experiences. The event runs April 10, 11 and 12 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

James St. John, an iron worker and business manager with Central Ontario Building Trades (COBT), said even though his own parents discouraged him from becoming a tradesperson, he's glad he did it. 

"There's an enormous stigma attached to construction and a lot of people have experienced it," he said.

One of St. John's first jobs involved going to schools on career day, and he found many parents resisted the idea of their child in a trade.

"People think, 'Construction, it's dirty, it's demeaning and there's something better out there,' and society all these years later is slowly changing … We're seeing the people applying to mechanical trades nowadays are coming in with a university degree because they couldn't find a job in the sector or the field they were looking to."

One of the Future Building virtual reality stations will simulate the experience of walking across a beam at the top of the CN Tower. (Future Building)

"There's so much potential in construction where you can have a very good career and then retire with a great pension," he said.

St. John said part of his job at the event will also be informing students of the credits they'll need if they're thinking about going into the field.

"At Future Building, if we can start to create the awareness in grade school before they get to high school, so they can take the proper maths and sciences, then they're going to have an opportunity to pursue a career in construction," he said.

'It's so fulfilling'

To expose even more people to the industry, St. John also works as the director of Hammer Heads, a program linking under-resourced youth to apprenticeships in skilled construction trades.

It gives young people the same sort intimate introduction to the industry as the Future Building event.

Tricia Ward went through the program and is now a fourth year plumbing apprentice with Gowing Contractors.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I was just stuck in a rut of trying out many things that were amazing, but just didn't work for me," she said.

Ward visited an employment centre and learned about the Hammer Head program, and eventually landed in plumbing.

Tricia Ward says construction is a 'boys' club,' so more needs to be done to empower and inspire young women to try the trades. (James St. John/Hammer Heads)

"No day's ever the same. You're always moving around and that's one of the biggest parts for me because I was always getting bored at my desk job and just not feeling challenged," she said. "You make a lot of money, but it's making an impact as well. It's so fulfulling."

Ward believes there should be more conversations about the trades in high school.

"They're pushing becoming a lawyer, a social worker … it's not that that's wrong or it's bad, we need those, but why can't we push the trades as well?"

These Future Building events are a way to start that dialogue, she said.

"If you can actually earn while you learn and try a trade out, and by the time you finish and become a journeyperson by 24-years-old, if and then you want to try a different thing … at least you have money in your pockets and you have a skill behind you to fall back on."

The events seem to be having an impact, according to the OCS.

Bronk said they've done surveys showing many students who attend the event are more likely to pursue a career in a construction trade, including many young women.

"It totally turned their perceptions around," he said. "What we hope that they take away is that it's a very high-tech opportunity, the pay scale is lucrative and the job options are limitless."

About the Author

Taylor Simmons

Associate Producer, CBC Toronto

Taylor Simmons works in all areas of the CBC Toronto newsroom, from writing for the website to producing TV and radio stories. Taylor grew up in Mississauga, Ont. and studied journalism at Western University. You can reach her at taylor.simmons@cbc.ca.