Penticton students learn tricks of the trade

Pilot program at Princess Margaret Secondary giving 15 students a taste of the building trades

Okanagan College instructor Chuck Edwards (left) coaches students Ryan Combs and Paul Murray on safe use of a table saw. The trio is involved in the Gateway to the Trades program

Okanagan College instructor Chuck Edwards (left) coaches students Ryan Combs and Paul Murray on safe use of a table saw. The trio is involved in the Gateway to the Trades program

Ryan Combs prefers pushing wood through a table saw to pushing a pen across paper, and he’s finally found the school setting in which to do it.

The 16-year-old is enrolled in a 12-week pilot program at Princess Margaret Secondary that’s giving 15 students a taste of the building trades.

“Just sitting behind a desk all day doing book work is not the best for me, so when I found out about this, I took the opportunity to do it,” said Combs.

Although he finished Grade 10, his interest in school had waned so he enrolled in alternate education without a career path in mind. Combs then began the Gateway to the Trades program in February and is now considering following in the footsteps of an uncle who’s an electrician.

“It feels like I want to do that,” he said, “or maybe find a new trade in here.”

David Kalaski, career programs co-ordinator for the Okanagan Skaha School District, said most of the Gateway students struggled in a traditional school environment.

“We have 15 students who, to a large extent, were greatly at risk of not completing secondary school,” Kalaski told a school board committee meeting.

“We needed a shift from what these students were doing in their schools before the program.”

That shift came when they began attending class in an empty woodworking shop at Princess Margaret and Okanagan College sent one of its instructors to run the show.

Students spend 90 minutes a day on math skills, learn about the building trades, take field trips, listen to guest speakers describe the rigours of their careers, and receive training for a handful of safety certificates.

“The intent of all of this at the end of the day is the students walk out the door with an employability tool kit,” Kalaski said.

Instructor Chuck Edwards said he was uncertain what to expect from the program, since it marked his first time as a teacher, so he tried to give the kids a preview of the real world.

“This is how we do it on a job site. If you’re working, you have to be on time, you have to dress appropriately, you have to wear the safety gear. We teach them all that stuff as we’re going,” Edwards explained.

“What we’re trying to do is give them some basics and get them interested in a trade, and from here they can step up into the next course, which would give them their first year of an apprenticeship.”

Gateway is operated by Okanagan College with funding from the B.C. government, although the school district supplies the students and classroom space.

John Haller, the college’s dean of trades, said the institution has offered the program to women and aboriginals, but this version is designed to let kids figure out what they want to do with their lives and also help address Canada’s shortage of skilled workers.

“We’re really pleased so far with what we’ve heard about the program,” Haller said.

Equally pleased is Paul Murray.

The 19-year-old is just a few credits shy of graduation and had been trying to finish up through alternate education because a regular classroom setting hadn’t work for him.

“I needed more of a hands-on approach kind of thing. One-on-one (has) worked a lot better,” he said.

So far, Gateway has helped him brush up on math and carpentry skills, and opened his eyes to the career options available to him. At the moment, he’s leaning towards heavy-duty mechanics or welding.

“The whole reason I got into this program was to find out what I could do, because I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” Murray said. “I want to do something with my hands.”