More young people need to look at the skilled trades as a career. Currently, there are more than 100,000 skilled jobs going unfilled in Ontario alone, but this issue is a Canada-wide problem.
The Central Ontario Building Trades (COBT) created the Hammer Heads program back in 2009 as a one-week awareness program designed to support at-risk youth. Its intention was to provide those graduating from the program with employment-based training within the construction industry that could offer apprenticeship opportunities. Since then, the program has grown and expanded into a registered charity. Many program participants were wards of the Children’s Aid Society, living on social assistance, or in a shelter.
The current program manager of the program, Quoc Trong, was even a graduate of the program. “I was 26 years old, pretty much down, and I had no avenue to go. But I found a program through a social worker and took a leap of faith. I went through this program not knowing anything about construction at all. I didn’t know how to swing a hammer. But I graduated from the program as the top student and became a steamfitter by trade,” shared Trong. “As a person of a minority background, construction was frowned upon growing up. But, through the Hammer Heads, we’re highlighting that construction is a viable option and can be an option for everyone. You can make good money, have a great pension, good benefits, and make a good living.”
The Hammer Heads program targets people aged 18 to 26 and annually runs six programs. Pre-pandemic, there were 15 to 17 students in the program; post-pandemic see about 10 to 12 kids. Through its partnership with the COBT affiliate training centers, which consists of 25 construction unions, the program can “host a 10-12 week boot camp style pre-employment and mentoring program that exposes youth to various construction trades. The first two weeks of the program consists of health and safety training, then the rest consists of training at various centers,” explains Trong.
To register, applicants must meet the age requirement and reside in an under-resourced community in the Greater Toronto Area, and have a minimum of Grade 10 math, English and science credit or a GED. Applications are free, and there are four intake periods throughout the year.
While in the program, participants are closely monitored and evaluated based on job readiness, mechanical aptitude, and attitude at each training centre they visit. “The beauty of our program is we are dealing with several personalities, people from different walks of life, so it isn’t just a one-size fits all type of training. We mix and match different ways of training and education based on the type of students we have,” adds Trong.
In total, the program has helped 95 per cent of graduates find apprenticeships in jobs such as plumbing, steam fitting, refrigeration, electrical, bricklaying, and more. These graduates have also held onto their jobs for at least a year.
“Our goal is to cost the employer zero dollars to hire our kids. The program provides kids with safety boots, hard hats, and clothing. They are getting the training and also look the part so when they get hired as an apprentice, they are job ready,” said Trong.
Support from community
The Hammer Heads program received more than $350,000 in provincial government support in 2022 to create an additional 390 spots within the program and local organizations. The program has 14 partners, some of which include Toronto FC, the University of Toronto Scarborough, the BOLT foundation, and the Pinball Clemons Foundation.
The Pinball Clemons Foundation, run by former Toronto Argonaut, Michael “Pinball” Clemons, “jumped on board right away and became an integral part of our organization. The foundation has been an advocate and partner for us since the beginning,” said Trong. The Pinball Clemons Foundation mentors students from the Hammer Heads program as they work on obtaining their trade certification.
The Hammer Heads program also provides opportunities for graduates to give back to the community by participating in local community waste pickups. Additionally, graduates of the program can become leaders of the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC). The committee is a group of mentors and coaches that support the new participants of the program in achieving their goals.
The next step is to look for improvements in the program. The Hammer Heads are trying to keep up and change with the times. “Technology is evolving, and we want to adapt the new technology into our training, like virtual reality. With virtual reality, students can walk a beam and gain that experience,” explains Trong.
To date, 165 Hammer Heads graduates no longer need Ontario Works support for an approximate savings of just over $4.6 million. Additionally, 255 graduates who have been residents of Toronto Community Housing began apprenticeships, and 633 graduates have started their registered apprenticeships.