January 9, 2024

THE COLLEGE OF THE BC BUILDING TRADES has launched its Trade Ambassador program with the aim of attracting more young people to the sector. The program is made up of young members of the building trades — like Kirsty Lawton — who volunteer to go into schools across B.C. to talk with students.

A member of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers (Ironworkers Local 97), Lawton said she volunteered because she became interested in the trades after a construction company visited her classroom. She went on to participate in a rebar bootcamp with Local 97, then went to work.

“If I didn’t see that presentation, I probably wouldn’t have even heard of [rebar], to be honest,” she said. “At first, I thought ‘no way,’ but it was great. So I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m making lots of money.”

Lawton, who graduated from high school last year, has already worked on major projects across the Lower Mainland.

The Trades Ambassador program has developed at lightning speed since Layne Clark took over the project. She is the director of workforce development for the BC Building Trades (BCBT).

“We’ve recruited more than 20 young workers, all under the age of 35, to talk to students about their experiences in construction and not just to represent their own trade, but to talk about all of the building trades,” said Clark.

So far, the uptake has been strong, with about 2,500 students participating in workshops within the first three months of the program, which kicked off in September. There has been overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers and students and Clark estimates the program will reach approximately 5,000 students by the end of the school year.

“What makes this program so powerful is that it’s young people talking to young people about their experiences,” said Clark.

It’s a formula designed to reach those who may know a bit about apprenticeships and the trades and are willing to listen when their peers share stories with them. The ambassadors are from a cross-section of the trades and many are in the process of completing their apprenticeships. Many are young women.

The Trades Ambassador program was developed with the input of BCBT affiliates and trades teachers across the high school system. It’s tailored to reach Grade 10 students but is also meant to educate the public generally about the respect and prestige that comes along with skilled trades, said Clark.

The program also provides valuable leadership experience for young BCBT members. The volunteers, who received training at four different College of the BC Building Trades schools, were also coached in public speaking. They will have ongoing support as they go into schools and present a workshop that broadly introduces students to construction, the apprenticeship process and the 22 trades.

Travis Woolford, training coordinator for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 (IUOE Local 115), didn’t hesitate when asked if he wanted to be involved.

“I was fully on board and volunteered right away,” said Woolford, who added that programs like the Trades Ambassadors open doors for young people.

“You don’t need a university ticket to be financially stable and have a good work-life balance,” he said. “There’s so many avenues and things you can go down. You’re going to school and you’re getting paid, and you’re not accumulating all of that debt. If you want to do more with it, you can,” he said. “If you put in the work, you’re going to get recognized.”

College of the BC Building Trades training schools continue to be the top trainers of apprentices in British Columbia. Clark thinks the new outreach program will only build on that success.

“We want young people to know that, if they want to get their Red Seal and land a well-paying jobs in the trades, our training schools are the absolute best option out there.”

by Megan Terepocki