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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Youth Force
OYAP highlights the alternatives

By Aunie Edwards
Special to The Toronto Sun

Sue Ferguson is an educator who believes in opening doors. She is also a high school principal at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute who believes that providing her students with a way to attain a goal is as essential a task as making all of the options clear.

"Without a real focus and some direction, even the best students can drift," Ferguson says.

For example, the option to proceed to university is an excellent path for some high school graduates, and because it is a familiar one, it is clearly marked.
Steamfitter Mike Taylor, right, offers a live demonstration of his trade to Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute student Justin Murray, middle, with his mother Orma Murray.

"Unfortunately, too many students see going to university as the only way to a good life," Ferguson says. "There is often a disconnect between that goal and the reality of the situation -- if university isn't possible, the student may carry the weight of disappointment into the future. Or, if the student struggles, he or she is likely to graduate with a large debt and general credentials for an entry-level, low-paying position."

University is not, however, the only alternative, and in an effort to throw the doors of opportunity wide open, the educators at Marc Garneau Collegiate organized a trades fair.

On Thursday, Feb. 13, the school invited its community to speak with industry representatives, school board members and educators about the merits of the skilled trades, and a smart plan to achieve a future in the skilled workforce. The plan is a well-considered collaboration by the provincial government, the skilled industry and high school educators and it is called the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Sponsored by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, OYAP gives young co-op students the opportunity to apprentice in a skilled trade at a community business. While earning high school credits, the student also accumulates hours and skills that can be applied to a government-subsidized college apprenticeship and eventual certification.

"Creating and maintaining an equitable workforce starts with diversity in the classrooms," says Ferguson.

And Marc Garneau is a perfect example of the diverse community that it serves.
Student Safiyyah Motala, with principal Sue Ferguson, left, consults with apprenticeship co-ordinator Susan Boorman, right.

"Twenty-eight per cent of our student population have been in Canada less than three years -- we offer English as a Second Language to 350 kids. We serve special education needs in our community, and our highly gifted math and science program is a magnet that draws kids from everywhere," Ferguson explains. "We have a wonderful, healthy mix of students and backgrounds and we require that every option for a hopeful future be brought forward."

In combination with OYAP, the skilled trade co-op programs give students a chance to begin training in high school, and apply that training toward their eventual certification.

They gain valuable work experience and professional connections before even entering college apprenticeships.

Students can earn about $15/hour while apprenticing, and the related college courses are fully subsidized.

They can become certified without accumulating debt, and with a significant skilled shortage upon us, their expertise will be in high demand.

"This is a win/win scenario," Ferguson says. "At our trades fair, I observed several kids as they spoke with skilled trades people -- I watched them as they realized the possibilities and I saw hope in their faces."

The first annual Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute Trades Fair 2003 shed light on the worthy pursuit of the skilled trades, and the excellent OYAP vehicle by which to gain these skills.

For Ferguson, the task of raising awareness will continue. "Next year, we'll spread the word even better -- I'd like to see more students look to the future with shining eyes."

(Aunie Edwards ( is a Guelph-based freelance writer.)

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