Skilled trades career option for high incomes

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Dean Brian Haugen explains a weld failure pressure test to Surrey Board of Trade visitors to the welding lab. Photo by Ray Hudson

by Ray Hudson

Dean Brian Haugen explains a weld failure pressure test to Surrey Board of Trade visitors to the welding lab.    Photo by Ray Hudson
Dean Brian Haugen explains a weld failure pressure test to Surrey Board of Trade visitors to the welding lab.
Photo by Ray Hudson

Brian Haugen is the Dean of Trades and Technology at the Cloverdale campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). He is also a Red Seal heavy duty mechanic with experience in road building, heavy construction and marine equipment. He came to KPU last fall from Vancouver Community College (VCC) where he was head of the Heavy Mechanical Trades. Ray Hudson of the Asian Journal, spoke with Dean Haugen about the trades as not only a viable but lucrative career option for a job market (current and future) that will be clamouring for people with the technical skills combined with the ability to work in teams, communicate effectively and demonstrate good analytical abilities. Haugen feels KPU Cloverdale can produce the people to fit those profiles.

Asian Journal: What are the prime issues concerning trades training that you want to deal with?

Brian Haugen: I see the skills that will be in demand in the future as the same ones we’re dealing with right now. Welding, millwrighting, carpentry, plumbing and electrical are trades in high demand in BC. Traditionally they lead to Red Seal certification (a nationally recognized trade qualification) where the student does pre-apprenticeship training (known as a foundation) then a three to four year apprenticeship. If the individual is successful the Red Seal is awarded.

But that’s not the only path. A lot of those jobs create skills that although not leading to a Red Seal, still end up with quality employment. For instance, in millwrighting, pipefitting or electrical, you may take some of those skills you learned in foundation and work in the manufacturing sector, say in Surrey, and although it doesn’t lead to a Red Seal, you could be having a meaningful life and be contributing to the economy and your employer. Maybe at some point you could loop back and carry on with an apprenticeship, or you may not, but either way, I think it provides a good general education on the industrial side of the economy.

Asian Journal: In the time since we began our education, the world has completely changed. A welder was a welder, but now they need so much more than just the one skill. How are you addressing that?

Brian Haugen: If you’re taking a pump apart or putting an electric motor together, aligning conveyor belts or things like that, that’s the physical part, but while you’re learning that, you’re learning how to cooperate, how to use documents, learn how to read, use math skills and troubleshoot using what people call soft skills. Those are in a sense, the real skills that a trades-person can take with them into all sorts of other areas. If you’re trouble-shooting a bearing failure in a pump system or something, it requires the analytical approach of what happened, when did it happen, how did it happen, and so on. It’s the same process required of an accountant where the books didn’t balance. I believe this allows people to be adaptable to changing technology and we provide that by giving students the experiences they’ve never had before.

Asian Journal: How do you address the issue that the trades are seen as a fallback to those who can’t handle university, that it’s not seen as professional despite the fact that many trades pay as well or better than many academic professions?

Brian Haugen: Some students still come with that attitude but once they realize the rigor and the pressure to learn and develop both their mental and physical skills, many realize it’s different than they thought. They realize that if they do something wrong it could cost the employer a whole lot of money or cost someone their life. We teach them that there are stakes in everything we do in the trades. For instance, in a construction project or in a trade setting, every single person has a purpose and a value. The person has a high level of responsibility so if they’re working on something and break it, they can’t say, well, the committee did that! So part of that professionalism, is that high level of accountability in what they do. We have people that come out of university and come over to get a trade, and they’ve said to me that that level of accountability, and that reliance on their own abilities made a difference in their lives. They had that higher sense of self-respect just knowing that everything they did made a difference. How do you get that across? I believe the training forces them to realize they can be more, and still be individuals.

Asian Journal: Are you offering business elements to these trades people who may want to start their own operations at some point?

Brian Haugen: I’m hearing that a lot from the industry and I’m glad because if the industry isn’t saying it, it’s harder for us to push it, or justify it. I was meeting with some engineers yesterday talking about the need to develop those kinds of skill sets. I don’t think we’re doing it enough currently. You might get a couple of hours in a course. But a lot of the instructors around here have had their own businesses so they relate some of these concepts. While I was just speaking with a plumbing instructor he pulled a fitting out of the garbage can and commented that it was a perfectly good fitting that could be cleaned up and used again. All the students saw that and I think it was an aha moment – why throw it away? The value of that fitting was $5 but in order to make $5 profit, to buy that thing for $5, what was the real cost? It was really neat, and a lot of our instructors inculcate that. I’m really trying to foster that financial accountability and other accountability measures so our instructors can pass that along to the students to demonstrate it by living it. We have to do it carefully, we have to do it right, we have limited budgets just like in the real world.

Asian Journal: How do you get to the parents to convince them that the trades are as valuable and professional as university training?

Brian Haugen: I’m not sure. It’s in the media and widely reported that the trades pay well. We have a bricklayer instructor who last year made $175,000. He’s taking about a 50% cut to be an instructor here because he’s got the passion to do it. I spoke to a woman who is a heavy duty mechanic who works in Ft. McMurray and makes $205,000 per year, two weeks on and two weeks off. These are some dramatic examples, but it is expected that the country will be seriously short of trades people in the face of retirements due to an aging work force while the expansion of the society demands more and more services.

Haugen says currently there are waitlists for all the foundation programs. In Heavy Duty Mechanics there are two-year waitlists. I think we really need to convince employers to start demanding first year apprentices more. If there are jobs, that causes the draw and that makes parents think little Johnny is sitting on the couch in the basement when he could be sitting in an excavator building something and making a good living.

For more information on the offerings of KPU Cloverdale’s Trades and Technology campus check out www.kpu.ca/trades