Sparking future careers in welding

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CWB Welding Foundation's camps are introducing youth to skilled trades across Canada.

By Nicolette Beharie

Donning a protective helmet and fire-resistant clothing, a welder skillfully applies heat to a sheet of metal. Sparks fly as she begins to work, while a more experienced welder watches on. At the end of the day, the welder smiles with pride as she displays her finished product: a beautiful metal rose. While this could be the experience of a tradesperson, they are not in a workplace. And the welder is a 12-year-old student. 

Through the CWB Welding Foundation’s Mind Over Metal camps, students across the country are learning about careers in trades for the first time. Launched in 2014 as a pilot project, the camps are designed to change the perceptions of youth and their parents about welding and welding-related job opportunities. 

“There’s a lot of stigma attached to the skilled trades and some of these careers in welding,” says Mary Fuke, program manager at CWB Welding Foundation. “We want to make sure that we’re breaking down some of those barriers and really giving the kids a hands-on experience.”

The CWB Welding Foundation hosts the camps in partnership with local schools and community organizations. With the support of qualified instructors, youth aged 12-17 learn about important safety practices and how to weld things like a cowbell, BBQ tools and book ends with confidence. The one-week camps typically run during the summer and March Break. There is no cost to attend and students are provided with lunch and snacks.

Chris Code, a manufacturing teacher and the head of tech at Timiskaming District Secondary School in New Liskeard, Ont., held the first camp at his school about a year before the COVID-19 pandemic put many of the camps on hold. His camp was among 80 hosted in one year across Canada between 2018 and 2019. After nearly two years on hold, the camps are back up and running again. More than 30 camps have been hosted in 2022, and the number is growing.  “These camps give kids an opportunity to try out something that they may not have ever thought of in a fun, safe and controlled environment,” he says.

Many of the students who attend the camps are in Grades 7 and 8 and have never learned about the trades. That’s why the camps include time to discuss both career and post-secondary education opportunities. “At college, they can take anything from a welder fitter course to a welding engineering course,” says Code. “The options are a lot more than they could even imagine.”

Lauren Knox, an 18-year-old welding student at New Brunswick Community College, volunteered at a local camp and served as a guest speaker this past summer. As a young person herself, she wanted to inspire the students and challenge their thinking about a career in welding. 

At the beginning of her message, Knox posed this thought-provoking question to the students: Did you know that you can weld in space? This piqued their interest and started a conversation about other interesting career paths in welding. Knox, who plans to become an underwater welder, also shared her personal journey.  

Through discussions with the instructors, the camps help young people to identify how welding is a part of everyday life. “There’s nothing that isn’t touched by manufacturing, whether it’s the car they drove to school or the refrigerator they got their breakfast out of this morning,” says Code. 

Meeting the Demands of the Future

The Mind Over Metal camp is one of the ways that the CWB Welding Foundation is seeking to address the welding skilled trade shortage in Canada. “We want to grow the welding industry and we want to make sure that there is a sustainable pipeline, and doing these camps really helps support that,” says Fuke. “The youth are the beginning of that pipeline. They are the ones who are going to be the future.”

Earlier this year, the Government of Canada launched a campaign to promote the skilled trades as a strong first-choice career path for youth and young adults. “Now more than ever, as Canada recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, skilled tradespeople are in high demand to fill well-paying jobs and build rewarding careers,” the government said in a news release. “The most recent projections estimate about 700,000 skilled trades workers are expected to retire between 2019 and 2028, creating an ever-growing need to recruit and train thousands more.”

Citing the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, the federal government also highlights the demand for skilled journeypersons in Red Seal Trades: In the next five years, an average of around 75,000 new apprentices will need to be hired per year. And welder is among the top trades most at risk of not meeting the demand.

The CWB Welding Foundation has a mandate to reduce barriers to accessing welding careers – especially for underrepresented groups like women and Indigenous peoples. As a result, the foundation works with communities to host focused camps to address this need. This includes camps for girls, mothers and daughters, Indigenous communities and at-risk youth.  

In Canada, young women continue to be less likely to express interest in a career in the skilled trades, says a news release from Employment and Social Development Canada. “According to a survey done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only two per cent of 15-year-old female students indicated that they were definitely planning to pursue a career in the skilled trades,” the news release adds.

Robb Wilson, a welding teacher at St. Stephen High School in St. Stephen, N.B., has been hosting Mind Over Metal camps at his school for several years. He says that most of the middle school students who participate in the camps go on to take his welding class in high school. Although there was a time when Wilson only had boys in his class, he has noticed a shift in attendance over the years. This semester, nearly a third of his students are female.

Supporting Youth Participation in Welding

As a national registered charity, the CWB Welding Foundation relies on support from industry and corporate partners to meet the needs of the camps. This year, 3M Canada supported the Mind Over Metal camp through sponsorship and product donations. 3M Applications Engineers also delivered educational sessions to the campers, highlighting welding safety and abrasive technologies.

“We feel so fortunate to contribute to the CWB Mind Over Metal camp initiative. The camp aligns with 3M Canada’s goal to support skilled trades experiences for youth, greater inclusion and equity, and improving workplace safety by educating Canadians about the proper use of PPE,” says Brooke Sveinbjornson, 3M Canada personal safety division marketer.

Students who participate in the Mind Over Metal camps earn 30-35 hours of experience and receive a certificate of completion on the final day. “They learn a lot,” says Wilson, who highlights the importance of making the camps fun for kids. “But they don’t even realize it until you point it out to them at the end.”

Parents are invited to the BBQ celebration on the final day of the camp to see their children receive their certificates. They also get a chance to meet the instructors and hear more about the camp.

Fuke says it’s important to get parents involved in these early conversations with kids about a possible career in welding. Through the camps, parents and youth alike learn that pursuing a trade does not mean working in a dirty factory and it doesn’t have to be a “scary thing”, she adds. “As long as you have the appropriate PPE, you are very safe welding – even at 12 years old.” SMT

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