Addressing the skills shortage

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By Bruce Nagy

We’ve all heard the old joke: What’s the difference between a university degree and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four. (Groan…)

Youth unemployment is a problem in North America. However, perhaps more young people should pursue skilled trades rather than university degrees. Experts believe demand for trades people in plumbing, HVAC and refrigeration will grow by more than 20 percent every year for the next 5-10 years. Those who want a job offering decent wages have demographics to thank. The outsized ‘baby boom’ generation has reached retirement age.

Plumbing & HVAC recently talked to college instructors in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick about the demand for skilled trades. They noted that population growth in North America (about one percent annually) and the shift to cleaner, efficient building systems are also contributing to robust activity. Our industry is alive with mechanical upgrades, maintenance, innovation and new construction. Teachers reported that over 90 percent of their apprentices and grads are employed.

New technologies

Alberta seems to be the only region where apprenticeship levels have softened, due to low oil prices. “Even with the oil industry being stingy, we don’t have enough resources to put every one through school who wants to go through,” reported Ken Helmer, academic chair, pipe trades, at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary.

“Some might have to come in March instead of January. Our grads go where the work is. If they want to work in Fort McMurray there are jobs there, with all the rebuilding after the fire.” And SAIT has just opened its new Green Building Technologies (GBT) Lab and Demonstration Centre.

New technologies and electronics may offer avenues for attracting young people. They are working their way into existing curriculums. Most trade schools have also created new green building programs offering content that overlaps with technician training in plumbing, HVAC and refrigeration.

“We’re teaching programming, electronics, press fit, plastic pipe,” said Stefan Tremblay, plumbing instructor at the Laurier Competency Development Centre (LCDC) in Laval, Quebec. “Also, more heat pumps and variable speed, ductless equipment and radiant heating.”

“The heat pump business has really taken off in New Brunswick. Natural gas is important, but not like the levels in Ontario. We’re seeing very fast growth in electric heat pumps and mini-splits,” added Paul Carter, New Brunswick Community College (NBCC) dean of trades, apprenticeship and preparatory.

More resources

Mohawk College in Stoney Creek, Ont. offers a three-year diploma in green technology and, like SAIT, has invested in physical resources (or had them donated). It has a complete net-zero home within the facility that operates off-grid and is studied, modified and monitored by diploma and trades students, reported Angelo Cosca, associate dean, construction and building systems, skilled trades and apprenticeship.

Simtronics software allows students to enter a system design to determine if it would operate correctly and safely. They can log in remotely and thus run simulations before coming to class. These and other resources are used to study geothermal, refrigeration, solar thermal and photovoltaic (PV), renewables, grey water and hydronics.

New Brunswick Community College is involved in a new federal government software project that provides refrigeration simulators. “Students can practice their designs via the internet and instructors can monitor their progress,” explained Carter.

“This has also led to some distance learning experimentation, such as a virtual class on Fridays. The goal is not to eliminate the brick and mortar school experience, because of the importance of the practical element with trades. But if we can make it easier for students, who sometimes do a lot of travelling to get here, why wouldn’t we?”

Research and development

At George Brown College in Toronto, sustainable building technologies have been integrated into the mechanical engineering technologist, apprenticeship, architecture, construction management, and IT programs for many years. In 2014 this culminated in the expansion of the Casa Loma campus in the form of a four-storey building to accommodate new student needs and, also, to allow the college to take advantage of an applied research opportunity, offering clean tech collaborations with private companies and governments. After the expansion, ithad an immediate waiting list for projects and plenty of funding. Testing facilities and industry partnerships have been a major boon to engineering students, apprentices and architectural technologists.

Quebec-based LCDC is also opening a new facility this year to provide modern, fully equipped labs and expand its course offering. “We are the only school in the province that will offer the option for courses in English,” added Tremblay.
“We’re satisfying demand, especially around Montreal. For example, some immigrants have enough difficulty with English and, for them, it would be too much to learn French before their training in the trades.”

Medicine Hat College in Alberta has replaced its outdated CAD program with a Built Environment Engineering Technology program, reported Dennis Beaudoin, dean, trades and technologies. Students now learn to design systems that include renewables, energy saving technology like heat recovery ventilators, smart thermostats, and different ways to build with tighter envelopes, new windows and solar panels.

Industry advice

Asked how they ensure they are teaching the right skills, most college instructors mentioned program advisory panels made up of representatives from local employers that meet with faculty quarterly or annually. “In our case, instructors also take a week of training in new industry tech each year,” said Glenn Walsh, chief instructor for refrigeration and air conditioning at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).

“Manufacturers donate products. Students come in with questions about new systems and we explore the answers with them.” Among other things, BCIT is teaching radiant hydronic heating, heat recapture from refrigeration, water source energy, and energy recovery with HRVs and ERVs.

“We do (global warming friendly) refrigerant systems like ammonia and CO2, but we don’t have CO2 equipment in the shop yet.” They also touch on tighter building envelopes and load sizing.

“It is a challenge to keep up with all the new electronics and it’s more important than ever to ensure there is knowledge transfer from our aging population,” Walsh added.


Culture shock

Walsh also noted that BCIT’s mandate is to provide job-ready grads, which can be difficult if young people are not prepared for the real world. “Sometimes they are pushed through kindergarten to Grade 12 with a lot of hand-holding. They give everyone an ‘attaboy’ along the way. But we have to provide independent thinkers to the job site.”

“We’re finding there’s a bit of a culture shock after grade 12,” agreed Greg Taylor, program coordinator, heating, refrigeration and AC at Fanshawe College, London, Ont. “Some kids are not ready to do the work to pass the exam. We have to teach technical material and we also have to teach expectations.”

“These are compulsory trades, which means you have to be licensed. There’s no rolling average here,” said Mohawk’s Cosca. “They have to pass each and every course with a 60 percent average and they need 70 percent to pass their certification exams. They have to learn their on-the-job competencies and have them signed off by a journeyperson.”

Although it requires focus and dedication, entering the trades is not a bad deal. Employment prospects are excellent nationwide. About five years after starting their training, they can be earning journeyman wages. That should buy enough pizza to feed the family. (Please send this article to a young person!)


Bruce Nagy jpg
Bruce Nagy
is a Toronto-based freelance writer that reports on green technologies and solutions.

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