Apprenticeship program leads students from class to career

Chilliwack high school students benefit from secondary school apprenticeship program in the district.

High school students in Chilliwack receive unique support to pursue a career in trades, as they sit in the middle of an interlinked educational system that guides them from class to career.

The B.C. government estimates that there will be one million job openings by 2020, 43 per cent of which will be trades or technical occupations. By that time, there will be a shortage of 61,500 workers.

Keeping an eye on this, the Chilliwack school district has been tightening the connection between students and the job market, and providing students with an opportunity for a near-seamless entry into the workforce. This year, 160 students are enrolled in the secondary school apprenticeship (SSA) program, and well over a thousand have graduated from it since inception in 1995.

District apprenticeship coordinator Colin Mitchell estimates that nearly all students — 98 per cent by his estimate — who start the program, complete it. He also believes that the SSA program improves high school graduation rates.

“A student who is at risk of leaving school, can actually leave school, and work, and get credit towards graduation,” says Mitchell.

To get into the program, students aged 15–19 find a placement with a certified tradesperson in one of over 100 approved disciplines, including electrician, plumbing, cooking, hairstyling, carpentry, dairy production, horticulture, and landscaping.

After an interview with Mitchell, they have a list of requirements to complete before successfully finishing the program: they must work 900 hours (just under six months of full time work), take several SSA high school courses, and maintain at least a C+ average in their Grade 12 courses.

The big selling point for the program is that not only do students receive a course credit for every 120 hours worked, but all the work hours are paid by the business that takes them on.

At the average $13 an hour, students come out of the program with about $11,700 in earnings.

They are now in a much better financial position to pursue higher education, or set up their adult lives, than most high school graduates.

Still in high school, Elena Schroots has already worked a year as a chef at Earls Restaurant in Chilliwack under the SSA program. She finds it easy to balance the dozen or so work hours per week with her full-time Grade 11 education at Sardis Secondary School.

In the fall, Schroots will be one of a growing number of SSA students who are taking a University of the Fraser Valley course while still in high school. Under a full scholarship by the Industry Training Authority, she is starting Level 1 of the university’s cook apprenticeship program.

This is part of the Chilliwack school district’s push to further streamline the transition between high school and post-secondary education. Another example is the well-established ACE-IT welding program, which allows some SSA students to take advanced welding courses at UFV. Other students are enrolled in the pilot dairy management program at the country’s largest dairy cattle research facility in Agassiz, the UBC Dairy and Education Research Centre, and complete three weeks of instruction at UBC’s Agassiz campus as part of the package. In some cases, SSA program students graduate with a university certificate before finishing high school.

This connects nicely with UFV’s own drive to set itself up as a regional powerhouse of trades and technical training. The dedicated Faculty of Trades resides in the brand new Trades & Technology Centre at the Chilliwack campus and offers a wide variety of technical certificates.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Chilliwack’s middle schools are ramping up their hands-on education as well. Vedder Middle School recently purchased a computer-controlled router and plasma cutter, to give students “a taste of real-world manufacturing systems in a simpler, easier to understand way,” wrote applied skills teacher Paul Laurillard in an email.

“Couple this with today’s tech-savvy student, and you create a process where older traditional manufacturing techniques are merged with the high-tech world of computer manufacturing. Exposure will allow for a direct transfer of knowledge from school to industry,” he continued.

Most SSA program students receive a $1,000 provincial scholarship after they finish the program. Despite representing only 2% of the provincial student population, Chilliwack’s students win 16% of scholarships. 78 will receive it this year.

Former SSA program student Kiah Williams is now in the Cascade Culinary Arts School in Abbotsford, and prepares appetizers, salads and desserts at Restaurant 62. An Education Centre graduate, she sees the apprenticeship program as a better option to quitting school.

“Most people think, ‘I fail at school, so I have to work.’ That’s not the case. You can still go to school part-time and work full-time, and this course gives you credit for showing some initiative and actually going through school,” she said.