For the past few years, Lowell Soucie has been bouncing from one unskilled trade to another. Now he is committed to securing a job and higher income as a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machinist. This skilled trade is critical to a machine shop or manufacturing floor because it uses computer software to create 3D custom parts for production.
Lowell (pictured at left operating the CNC machine) represents the biggest challenge facing the Canadian skilled trade sector.
On one end, you have alarming stats on our talent gap in skilled trades. One quoted widely is from the Conference Board of Canada’s report The Need to Make Skills Work: The Cost of Ontario’s Skills Gap. It highlights how this gap continues to widen and is costing $24 billion annually.
At the other end, you have Lowell who would gladly fill a CNC role tomorrow, but he can’t just walk off the street and start operating this powerful machine. Obtaining certification requires three to five years of training and expertise in math, computer programming, studying blueprints and other technical skills.
“Everyone agrees we have a huge skills gap. As boomers and traditionalists retire, it’s driving huge demand,” says Ted Maksimowski, president, Express Employment Professionals, Hamilton and ACSESS national board member. “Few people are actually doing something about it but in Hamilton we are. We helped create an industry coalition to leverage collective impact and deliver something tactical, as well as tangible. The group did their due diligence, conducting extensive research and reaching out to companies experiencing the skills shortage pain. They identified a desperate need for CNC and Mobile Industrial Hydraulics operators. Then the group engaged Mohawk College, one of the leading trade colleges in Canada, to deliver the education in hard and soft skills.”
Led by The Industry Education Council of Hamilton, the coalition includes: the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth; Mohawk College, Express Employment Professionals; and multiple industry partners. Together they created the Employer Skills Training Advantage To Employment (“E.S.T.A.T.E”) Program, a pre-apprentice, work integrated learning program offered at Mohawk College for technical training and Mohawk College Enterprise for soft skills training.
It’s opening doors for Lowell. Watch Lowell’s video recommendation for anyone considering a program like E.S.T.A.T.E. He is one of 26 students (half in CNC and half in Mobile Industrial Hydraulics) being matched with an employer to receive 28 weeks of intense hard and soft skills in the classroom and on the shop floor. They also must complete a six-week placement at a manufacturing facility, where they receive on-the-job training and mentorship to guide and build confidence. See promotional video on E.S.T.A.T.E.
“Hamilton is a really interesting community. Not only is it revitalizing itself in terms of the economy and industry but there’s so much collaboration and partnership in trying to get things done,” says Cesare Di Donato, Executive Director, Industry Education Council of Hamilton.
“It was important to find the right experts to manage key elements of the program,” Di Donato explains. “Express is playing a critical role with us because they understand employers, employment, and hiring. The strategic plan it developed has helped us inform our work. Express also worked with us to set up interviews with partners and match students working in the CNC and Hydraulics trades. The fit has to be right to fill both needs and their team did an amazing job matching the right people with each need.”
One of E.S.T.A.T.E’s unique features is that each student is paired with an industry mentor who guides the student through the program and participates in four days of customized leadership training to enhance their skills as well.
“Matching the employers with the students was a meticulous process, involving resume reviews and interviews to achieve the right fit,” says Doug Ward, consultant, Express Employment Professionals, Hamilton. “We wanted to bring the students together with the right employer to ensure the best outcome, which is to get hired. Experienced CNC and Hydraulics trades secure an average hourly wage of 23 to 32 dollars depending on experience.
The Industry partners are hoping the E.S.T.A.T.E. program will be one of many because the qualified pool of tradespeople is also shrinking due to the aging workforce and lack of interest across Canada. Lowell is doing his placement at Stolk Machine Shop Limited, which specializes in quality machining, welding and fabrication solutions. If he is hired full-time, he will start a full apprenticeship, which could take up to five years of on-the-job training.
Wendy Taylor, Stolk’s Director of Operations, is eager to host a student who is getting the training offered by E.S.T.A.T.E because it creates a potential job candidate who is committed to the trade. It’s critical to mitigate the risk of investing in a candidate who ultimately discovers the job is not a good fit, sending Wendy back to the drawing board.
Wendy explains: “The ideal situation is to hire skilled people but we recognize that’s not always possible. If we hire someone from the E.S.T.A.T.E program, we know they have completed the pre-apprentice training and understand what they are getting into because they are studying first, second and third year apprentice material. Many of our machinists will be retiring during the next decade. It can take up to five years to become a skilled machinist and we only have a five to ten-year window where we will have experienced people onboard to help train.”
Wendy’s father started Stolk 35 years ago and she’s witnessed firsthand the benefits of being a machinist. “It is a job that is in demand and offers job security, full benefit packages, pensions, etc. These are things that young people may not yet appreciate the significance of.” states Taylor. “Sadly, no one pushed anyone into the trades when I was in school. As an industry, we have to continue to promote the benefits of the skilled trades through programs like E.S.T.A.T.E.”
One of Lowell’s instructors, Marla Robinson, is optimistic about job opportunities for the students who successfully complete the program. “Unfortunately, many people still consider careers in skilled trades as a pathway for those unable to attend college or university”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The diagnostic skills required to operate, program and maintain today’s technology require problem solving and critical thinking skills on par with those of any profession.
The trades offer excellent employment opportunities providing for a secure future. Robinson adds: "Think about the cost to repair your car or renovate your home. People don’t hesitate to leave the car with a mechanic or hire a contractor for a home repair or renovation, yet they won’t recommend this line of work to their kids. It makes no sense.