April 1, 2021

WHEN COVID STRUCK IN MARCH 2020 and construction was deemed an essential service, it was quite a shock for those in trades training. Program coordinators had to be quickon their feet to keep apprentices moving forward.

Paddy Byrne, director of training for the Finishing Trades Institute of B.C. (FTI), said the Industry Training Authority allowed them to shorten their Level 3 painting program by one week so apprentices could write their IP exams. One introductory course had to be cancelled altogether.

“After that was done, we pretty much shut everything down here for about two months,” he said. “We were like everybody else wondering what the heck was going to happen.”

Once things started opening up again, the FTI reduced the number of apprentices per class by 50 per cent and implemented the now familiar COVID-19 protocols like physical distancing, wearing masks and routine hand-washing.

“We redesigned our classroom to maintain distance between students. We reconfigured some of our mockups so everybody had an individual mockup to work on.” Numerous classes have been run since that time and there hasn’t been a single exposure or transfer of COVID-19 at the facility, he said.

“When we got to the end of December, we collectively breathed a sigh of relief. But, of course, we’re right back into it again,” said Byrne. “We think we’ve kind of found our COVID-19 groove. I do have to comment on how adaptive the students have been and how willing to abide the protocols. They’ve all been terrific.”

Meanwhile, SkillPlan CEO Kyle Downie said they were in the middle of running an essential skills course to support Indigenous participants to get in the Electrical Joint Training Committee’s (EJTC) entry level trades training program when the shutdown happened. SkillPlan had no choice but to move its training online, which was another direction they were going already.

“We wanted to be able to provide various delivery supports, face-to-face, and online, and COVID just helped us get ramped up on the online component,” said Downie. Although it has come with challenges, the remote learning is providing opportunities for more students to access support, he said.

SkillPlan provides essentials skills training and tutoring for pre-apprentices and apprentices as well as other training support offerings, like mentorship and curricula development.

“It was a very trying time,” recalls Jud Martell, training coordinator for the Sheet Metal Workers Training Centre. “We were caught in the middle of the March shutdown with three classes in session. We chose to do the change to remote learning,” he said, adding the centre was fortunate to have an online training database already.

“There was a lot of uncertainty, but we managed to limp our way through that, and everybody was safe,” he said.

Although the centre had to cancel an intake of 50 training spots, a class of Level 4 students was able to do their IPs. Training resumed with reconfigured classes (three classes of eight students).

“We got a stellar result where all 24 passed the IP. I’m not sure that’s ever happened, COVID, or no COVID,” Martell said.

Come September, the centre went with a blended system where students worked onsite for week (in classes of eight) and at home for a week.

“We were big proponents of Zoom,” he said. “We changed a lot of the programming so students didn’t need drafting boards when they went home. We created AutoCAD platforms for them, and learning platforms for them to do their theory.

“We were right in the teeth of that second wave, but our cleaning protocols and our health and safety committee really buckled down and made this place as safe as any other place on the planet in terms of COVID protocols,” said Martell.

The centre has resumed training its full number of apprentices. “The pinch point now is filling the gap with the hands-on training and having enough funding for this,” said Martell. “But the Building Trades are so resilient. We didn’t run away from things.” he said. “We stepped up.”

By Megan Terepocki