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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Build your skills -- not your debt

You don't have to go to university or graduate with a mountain of debt to carve out a lucrative career, say students determined to become skilled trades-workers.

"I didn't really want to sit behind a desk. I'd rather work with my hands," says Kyle Johnston, a 19-year-old college toolmaking co-op student from Ancaster, Ont.

"I just like watching something go from a piece of raw material into a finished product and there's like no comparison to what it started as."

Johnston's love of woodworking and automotive repair convinced him early in high school he should turn to trades instead of a professional career.

The choice was reinforced by his parents and information he read that indicated he would be handsomely rewarded by enthusiastic employers.

Next five years crucial

The Canadian Tooling and Machining Association estimates that 50,000 skilled trades workers will be needed in the next five years. The Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association has forecast a 42 per cent vacancy rate in skilled trades by 2007.

Significant growth in high-skilled jobs in Canada will continue over the next five years despite a slower rate of growth predicted for the country's overall economy, said a recent Scotiabank report.

Hugh Adams, a guidance counsellor at Lester B. Pearson high school in Montreal, says many students and parents view trades as being inferior to more academic programs.

"There is still a basic prejudice, bias, against the trades," Adams says. "It's just that whole perception that it is somehow less prestigious to be working in the technology field than it is to be in a white-collar occupation."

One-fifth of Canadians are job snobs who believe the best and brightest go to university, said a 2001 national survey conducted for Human Resources Development Canada.

These people tend to think that trades won't be in demand in the 21st century, are more physically than mentally demanding and operate under poor working conditions, said the report.

After following their friends to college, many students -- particularly those without "that bookish aptitude" -- abandon their parents' dreams months later, said Adams, who guides students to complete a diploma for vocational studies in 12 to 18 months.

The students are often drawn to starting hourly wages that range between $15 and $25 and the prospect of eventually becoming entrepreneurs.

"The money that people in the trades can make is quite remarkable," he said.

"We're not talking about minimum-wage jobs here."

Experienced electricians, toolmakers, pipefitters and chefs can make $35 an hour. That's more than $72,000 a year for full-time work, more than many white-collared professionals. Overtime can push wages beyond $100,000.

Johnston expects to earn at least $25 an hour once he's fully licenced in less than two years. He's earning $10 an hour as a co-op student at Edward's Protech in Brantford, which makes welding fixtures for a forklift company.

That should increase by 50 per cent in January when he begins his one-year apprenticeship.

"The money is a bit of a thing but it's more just being able to have a job and work 40 hours a week and not be tired of it at the end of the week," he said. "It's not like a pain to get up and go to work if you enjoy what you're doing."

He's also avoided the huge debt burden that befalls many university graduates.

"It seems like a good thing because lots of people always talk about their student loans that they're paying off 20 years after they graduate and I'm already done half my schooling and I still don't have any debt, basically."

A Statistics Canada report this year predicted that along with a shortage of highly skilled workers in jobs that usually require a university degree -- nurses, doctors, teachers and university professors -- there will also be a dearth of skilled trades workers such as plumbers and pipefitters.

From 1991 to 2001, however, the areas of study that grew the largest were related to technology: engineering, computer science, data processing, commerce and finance.

Older students

It's not just teens who are looking to develop skills in trades or technology, says Curtis George, assistant director at Rosemount Technology Centre in Montreal.

"You have people of different backgrounds, people of different levels studying here and it's not ... for the people who can't make it in high school," he said of the centre.

Last summer Jin Cho, 34, enrolled in a computer graphics course to give him marketable skills he failed to earn while completing a fine arts degree at Concordia University.

"When you finish university, sometimes you find that you don't have technical skills to go to a job," said the married father of two. "When I finish this, I can work right away."

-- CP

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