The Golden Ticket
The apprenticeship pathway attracts people from all sorts of backgrounds and provides many different construction career destinations
By Lisa Helder
SOME TRADESPEOPLE GROW UP DREAMING of being police officers, teachers—even tradespeople. Chris Courchene dreamed of being a gangster.
By age 11, Chris was well on his way to fulfilling that dream. He was living in Winnipeg and committing various crimes with his mother’s friends. She, a residential school survivor, was addicted to drugs and alcohol and unable to provide a stable home life for him.
By age 24, Chris had been arrested more than seven times and was getting out of prison again. He was also about to become a first-time father.
“I got out of prison, and I asked my parole officer, ‘How do I stay out of prison? How do I become normal?’ And she said that she had a client—another former inmate—who went to the BUILD program. He got a job there and he got a six-month certificate for insulating, and that got him into his construction career.”
BUILD (Building Urban Industries for Local Development) describes itself as a “social enterprise nonprofit contractor and a training program for people who face barriers to employment.”
Chris got into the program and helped retrofit low-income housing in Winnipeg. He then took part in a pitch to Scotiabank to get BUILD more funding. They found his story so compelling they gave $4.1 million to help newcomers, former inmates, and others enter the trades.
Chris’s needs, which are common to those with difficult pasts, helped structure a new program. He was able to get his high school diploma, his level one carpentry, a business course, and his driver’s license, with the help of BUILD.
“My dream was to become a carpenter because I was working with a Red Seal carpenter at the time,” says Chris. “He only has a grade eight education, but he was able to give his sons a totally different life than he’d had. It was always hand to mouth for him as a child, but he got into construction and his kids grew up and had this perfect life.”
Chris became a supervisor with BUILD, where he stayed for four years. He then went to Manitoba Green Retrofit (later called Purpose Construction), a sister company to BUILD, where he stayed for five years. During that time, he gave many interviews and talks to other organizations looking to replicate the success of the program.
“After five years, I thought, I’ve helped thousands of people get off of the welfare system and into the workforce through my work as a supervisor and also through speaking everywhere,” says Chris. “My kids were growing up, and I wanted to take them places, but being in a nonprofit organization, I wasn’t able to.”
And he wasn’t able to progress beyond level one with Purpose Construction.
“A guy that I had helped get into the program got his level one accreditation there, and then right away he went onto the commercial sector, finished his apprenticeship, and got his Red Seal. He heard that I was looking for a change and he said, ‘Would you like to come work at the company that I’m at?’ And that was Penn-Co Construction.
“It was very intimidating at first, but over the years, I’ve gained so much confidence in my work, and I’ve learned a lot of tricks due to these guys. The camaraderie here is awesome. Everybody wants to see everyone succeed.”
Chris has been at Penn-Co, a CLAC Local 152 company, for four years and is currently a level three carpenter. Once he gets his Red Seal certification, he plans to start his own construction company in Winnipeg’s urban centre.
NOT EVERYONE’S STORY IS AS dramatic as Chris’s. Many people get into construction because their family members are tradespeople.
This is how Local 63 member and steward Taylor Lee, a third-year apprentice welder with Nason Contracting Group Ltd. in Alberta, got into the trades. Taylor’s grandfather and uncle were both welders, and his uncle first taught him how to weld and encouraged him to go into the trade.
“I’ve grown up welding—since I was 10 or 11,” he says.
He started his apprenticeship as a high school student, through the Registered
Apprenticeship Program (RAP). When the program shut down during the first COVID lockdown in 2020, Taylor went to work for Nason full time and finished grade 12 via remote learning. He’s now a third-year apprentice and is certified by the Canadian Welding Bureau (CWB).
“Any apprentice can take the welding test,” says Taylor. “If you pass it, an apprentice can weld the same as a journeyperson can. I have my C pressure, which is the apprentice’s version of a B pressure, so I’m able to weld high-pressure pipe. And I do structural I-beams.”
Taylor also got his wife, a former paramedic, into welding. She’s currently a first-year apprentice with a different company.
Taylor’s ultimate dream is to one day have his own business as a welding rig operator.
LIKE TAYLOR, JEFF PICKLES, GOT into the trades through family. Jeff is a journeyperson electrician who now works as a training instructor for CLAC Training in Ontario. His father was an electrician, but instead of encouraging Jeff to go into the trades, he did everything he could to discourage him.
“I started my apprenticeship in high school, during summers with my father,” says Jeff. “But my grades were good, and he said, ‘Don’t be stupid; go to school!’
“So I went to university, got a degree in geography, and was planning on teaching. But I found out there weren’t many teaching jobs, so I bounced around for a little bit and restarted my apprenticeship.
“My dad was like, ‘I brought you into this so you could see how hard you would have to work, not so that you would choose to do it!’”
Jeff excelled in his field and quickly moved into a supervisory role with CLAC Local 52 signatory company DSK Electric Inc. in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), where he and his dad and brother worked for a number of years. But with the cost of living and housing rising rapidly in the GTA, Jeff and his wife decided to move to Chatham, in southwestern Ontario, so they could expand their family and own a home without being saddled with a giant mortgage.
“I didn’t want to be on tools the whole time, and being a foreman and a site supervisor is just way too stressful,” says Jeff. “Even with our pay grade, the stress is too high to make it worth it, especially in Toronto. And then there’s the traffic.”
Since the move, he’s worked as a subcontractor for several different companies and has become a trainer for CLAC’s Supervisor Micro-Certification Program (SMCP), where he trains supervisors how to excel in their role and provide proper support for apprentices. Jeff’s career journey has come full circle, and he is now both a tradesperson and a teacher, enjoying the best of both worlds.
PHIL RUMBLE IS ONE OF the many tradespeople who went from being on the tools to running a business—Rumble Electric Co. Ltd., a Local 52 signatory company—in the GTA.
“Prior to my apprenticeship, which I started in 1991, I took a police course,” says Phil. “But there was a hiring freeze.
“I was offered an electrical apprenticeship, and I wasn’t sure about it. I wasn’t very handy, and I wasn’t very technical. I’d never really done anything in a trade at all.
“A friend of mine who was doing his electrical apprenticeship told me, ‘You’ve got nothing to lose. You’re still young—give it a try and see what happens. If you don’t like it, then you’ve lost nothing.’
“So, I gave it a try. I learned quickly and did well with it, and that’s why I opened my own business.”
After finishing his apprenticeship in the late ’90s, he started his own company in 2005, which has grown from 5 to 40 employees, working in residential, commercial, and industrial construction.
Phil now employs a number of apprentices so that he can do his part to ensure there are enough electricians to replace those who are retiring.
ARE YOU THINKING OF A change in your career path? Do you know someone—a friend or family member—who is struggling with where they’re at, stuck in a low-wage job, struggling to pay the rent or mortgage? Encourage them to consider the apprenticeship pathway.
There are many different options available and many people and organizations willing to give you a hand up. Apprentices come from all sorts of backgrounds, with a variety of different career goals. Through hard work—and with the help of the right mentors—you can find the golden ticket to success and take your construction career in almost any direction.
10 Keys to Succeed as an Apprentice
1. Show up.
“The first thing you’ve got to do is show up. You’ve got to get up and push yourself through that door, and things will happen. And life will change. If you want to do better and you want to make a contribution to this society for the better, nothing can stop you after that.” —Chris Courchene
2. Commit to quality.
“You’ve got to hold yourself to a high standard. It will be seen by your employer. Try and be as good as a journeyperson while you’re an apprentice.” —Taylor Lee
3. Be humble.
“The biggest thing is to be humble. You have to want to learn. And don’t take it personally when people criticize your work. They’re not criticizing you—they’re criticizing your work and helping you grow as a person and as a tradesperson.” —Jeff Pickles
4. Find an employer who provides a variety of training and good mentorship.
“Try to make sure that you get exposed to a little bit of everything so you can learn a little bit about everything, and then you can see what you’re good at.” —Phil Rumble
5. Budget for schooling.
“Employment Insurance [EI] is a big change from your work pay—from the dollar amount, to the frequency of it. You’re going from a paycheque every week to every other week and maybe four to six weeks before you get that first one. I always talk to apprentices about budgeting. Put money aside, try to control your spending, and reduce your expenses if you can during school time. You might be able to afford that nice truck now, but think about how you will make payments during the three months you’re at school.” —Jeff
6. Apply for trade school on time.
“A lot of people fall behind on their apprenticeship progression because they didn’t register for trade school on time.” —Jeff
7. Study hard.
“When I got to college, I was thinking, what am I getting myself into? I took a leap of faith, and I said okay, well, I’m there, I’m going to work hard and study hard and try to get my level two. I graduated in December and already have my hours for my level three.” —Chris
8. Ask questions.
“Listen to the people you’re working with, and really take in what you’re being told. Give it 100 percent and really pay attention. If you pay attention and you ask questions, you can learn a lot from the guys that you’re working with.” —Phil
9. Avoid distraction.
“A lot of kids are always on their phones. When you’re working, you should stay off your phone and concentrate on what you’re doing. It’s a dangerous job sometimes—you don’t want to be distracted.” —Phil
10. Communicate and network.
“Communication is an essential construction skill. You need to be able to network, talk, and build on your relationships with people if you really want to be good at this.” —Jeff
7 Barriers to Completing Apprenticeships
Apprentices have a dropout rate of 44 percent, and many people who enter the trades can’t even get an apprenticeship started. The key question is why?
1. Lack of trade school seats
“The first year for school is really hard to get into. My wife is a welder, and she was on the wait-list for about four months to get in.” —Taylor Lee
“I would like young apprentices to get into school quicker. We’ve got a few apprentices now who have been here for a year and a half, almost two years, and they haven’t gone to school yet. I’d like them in their first year to get into school to get a basic understanding in electrical theory and electrical practices, and that’ll help them to be a little bit more efficient on the job when they come back.” —Phil Rumble
2. Lack of confidence
“When I was going to school, some guys would come up to halfway or three-quarters of the way and then drop out because they were intimidated by the final exams. They thought that they weren’t going to pass.” —Chris Courchene
3. Lack of respect and opportunity
“They’re dropping out because they’re not respected or treated well. The guys that have been in the trades for 20, 30 years, they don’t understand that this generation didn’t grow up knowing how to use a shovel or a power drill. It’s so hard to get them to see that and not look down on or talk down to the new apprentices. As a supervisor, you’ve got to get buy-in from the senior guys and get them to understand how they benefit by having these young people on site.” —Jeff Pickles
4. Lack of funds
“For some, it’s a money issue. Employment Insurance [EI] is not enough to cover bills—car payments, registration, getting to class every day, paying for parking, paying for your books, paying for food. It’s totally different from when you’re working. When you’re working, you’re well off, you’re doing okay. But when you go on EI, it almost feels like you’re back on welfare. And life happens. People get thrown a left curve sometimes. I can understand why people drop out.” —Chris
5. Lack of consistent employment
“They get laid off and they can’t find something else, or they might get discouraged. It’s up and down all the time. You could hit it at a bad time. But I believe you’ve got to hold yourself to a high standard. If somebody doesn’t hold themselves up to try and push for quality, and try and be like a journeyperson as an apprentice, that can be a make-or-break thing for an employer who needs to lay someone off. And if they don’t find another job, that can make people either switch or drop out and find something new.” —Taylor
6. Paperwork woes
“When apprentices don’t have consistent employment and are bouncing around, a lot of paperwork isn’t happening. And a lot of people getting into the trades aren’t good at paperwork, so they are falling behind on schooling because they didn’t register for school on time.” —Jeff
7. A dislike of dirt and seasonal employment
“It’s a tough job. It’s not for everybody. It can be seasonal, where you might work nine or ten months out of the year and then you’re off for two months, and a lot of people aren’t happy with that. And a lot of kids now want to be in IT or business or banking, and they don’t really want to get their hands dirty.” —Phil
The city of Chatham is part of the municipality of Chatham-Kent in southwestern Ontario. The area was known as a terminus point in the Underground Railroad. Many Black slaves ended their journey to freedom in the region, and for a time, Chatham became known as “Black mecca.”
Black Canadians once made up almost one-third of the population in the area. But many of them returned to the US after the abolition of slavery. Today, only three percent of the town is made up of Black Canadians. Numerous historical sites exist in the area that commemorate the Underground Railroad. You can learn more at destinationontario.com.