CFMS tech panel: Expose high school students to the trades early

by Sonia Straface

TORONTO, Ont. – How do we get young people to pursue a career in the trades rather than having them go the university route?

That was the question presented to a handful of panelists at this year’s Canadian Fleet Maintenance Summit that was held on April 13 at the International Centre in Toronto.

The panel, titled “Bridging the Generational Gap and Preparing Your Organization for What Lies Ahead: An HR Discussion” focused on the technician shortage and what businesses can be doing today to attract younger people to work in their shops.

The panelists included Vania Agostinho, a truck and coach technician apprentice for Carrier Centers; Scott Lakatos, a high school student enrolled in the Regional Specialist High Skills Major Truck and Coach Program at Bramalea Secondary School; Ryan VanderKooi, a student in the Truck & Coach Technician Program at Conestoga College; Dan Hutchinson, a professor in the School of Transportation at Centennial College; Barath Sockalingam, design and acquisition officer at Canada Post; and Glen Spencer, manager of Fleet Mechanical for the City of Kitchener. Truck News’ executive editor, James Menzies, moderated the session.

To attract younger generations into the shop in order to help mediate the tech shortage, all panelists agreed that it is vital to get to students when they are at the high school level or younger to inform them of job opportunities in the truck and maintenance industry.

“The trucking and coach industry isn’t pushed enough in high school,” said Hutchinson. “When I’m talking to high school students, all they are really aware of is being an automotive technician. There’s no awareness, it’s just automotive. Sometimes students want to be a technician but they just aren’t even aware of the opportunities. That’s a big thing I want to focus on.”

High school student, Lakatos, agreed with Hutchinson and said if it wasn’t for his elementary school informing him of the opportunity to be a truck technician, he wouldn’t have pursued it as a career at all.

Bramalea Secondary School is one of the only high schools that offers a truck and coach program to expose kids to the trades early on in their education.

Part of the discouragement away from the trades, especially in jobs like truck technicians is the stigma of being a “grease monkey” or being uneducated.

“I myself am an honour roll student at my school, yet when I talk to my peers and even some my family members, they’re shocked to learn that I’m going to college for an apprenticeship program, rather than at the top university,” Lakatos said.

Hutchinson said that in his experience, most parents are misinformed about the trade as well as the guidance counselors in the school.

“I actually had to have a conversation with a student’s parent,” Hutchinson recalled. “His parents were bent on him going to university and he wanted to get into this trade after talking with me. His dad came in and said, ‘He needs to get a good education, he needs to go to university’ and I said, ‘Do you know that when my friends went to university, I was already working and I’m still making more money than all of them? Do you realize what technicians do nowadays? A majority of my day is spent on my laptop. You need to know computers. The days of technicians or mechanics being called grease monkeys are long gone.’”

Spencer added that exposure to kids early on in their education is vital because trucking isn’t as advertised as automotives.

“When it comes to advertising, all these automotive dealerships are at the forefront, shiny cars out in main street and when it comes to truck dealerships and truck fleets, they’re all in the industrial areas,” he said. “Even on TV there’s no ads for trucks, but there’s lot for cars. We don’t have that banner for kids to go into trucking.”

The only female panelist at the seminar, Agostinho, added that young women should be considered, too, when looking to recruit new blood into the industry.

She said to recruit more women, a similar approach must be taken where young women need to be exposed of the opportunities early on through job fairs and field trips in elementary school.

I think (women are) scared,” she said of why she thinks there aren’t a lot of female technician apprentices. “Because it is a male dominated industry. If they knew once you got out there, all the guys are pretty nice. Nobody is going to go are you because you’re a female…they’d look into it.”

Hutchinson admitted that getting students from high school into a truck and coach program is only half the battle. The real struggle is keeping them engaged in the trade so they don’t drop out of the program before they fully understand the industry. Hutchinson said that many of his students wind up in the program because they hear of the salary potential.

“I see students who just want to get out (of school) and just think they’re going to make a ton of money right away,” he said. “They don’t realize the process. They need to be told the truth about the apprenticeship. And that leads to a let down when they actually go through the process…students are very different these days because when I was growing up we were very hands-on. Everyone took automotive classes in high school. Nowadays, I have a lot of students who when they come into my class, have never picked up a screwdriver before.”

To be successful in his class and get a recommendation from him, Hutchinson said students should be punctual and should be excited to learn in the shop.

Spencer added that when he’s looking to hire apprentices, attitude is an important factor.

“I’m looking for those who are willing to learn, willing to pay attention and those who don’t balk at a meaningless job like sweeping the shop floor,” he said. “Everyone has to start somewhere.”

On the other hand, the students and apprentice on the panel agreed that to keep them happy as new hires, employers should support young people and provide them with the skill set to grow.

“As an apprentice, let me do work and let me get my hands dirty,” Agostinho said. “Let me figure out how things work. And if I can’t do it on my own, out me with someone who has the experience, who has the knowledge who is able to teach me properly how to do those things. That’s something I look for in an employer: are you willing to help me grow?”

VanderKooi, a current truck and coach student said one thing shops should be aware of is apprentices paying for their own tools, which can sometimes be a deterrent.

“I don’t have to worry about it too much,” he said. “Because I’ve slowly gotten the tools I’ve needed. But it is a large investment, especially for those who don’t have a basic set of tools.”

Both VanderKooi and Lakatos agreed that shops looking to get young blood into the industry should look into tool costs for new hires and offer help as an incentive.

For those thinking about entering the industry, Sockalingam, who started as an apprentice and moved up the ranks rather quickly in the industry said: “For the young people, I would definitely tell them to take as many opportunities as they can. It’s a learning experience for most, but after that the pay will follow. Apply to as much as you can.”

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  • When I was in School I had a teacher that said to me “If you don’t want to be flipping burgers at McDonalds you better learn a trade”. I was in the 9th grade. We had a great shop program. Woodworking and Plastics, Woodworking, Welding (gas, mig, tig, arc), Machine shop, Automechanic 1&2, Blue Printing, Sheet Metal, Small Engines, and Print shop. I took them all. Because of that I developed a very good understanding of ALL aspects of my chosen field Mechanics. That comment from that teacher has made my chosen field very lucrative over the years. I presently have 2 patents that will rock the industry. Over the years, I have seen “mechanics” become nothing more than parts changers. Most can’t rebuild anything! When is the last time you saw someone rebuild a water pump, starter, or alternator? Most can’t diagnose anything without a computer. Presently I am almost 60 and can get a job anywhere because of my well rounded skills. If I have one thing to pass on its “never stop learning and never think you know it all!” You can learn from a beginner. Everyone has a different way of looking at things and come up with ideas that will make you better in your field. Embrace technology and add it to your arsenal but never forget the basics or K.I.S.S. Keep it simple stupid! As long as we have a need for transportation there will be a need for mechanics. Too bad it took the industry this long to realize something I saw 25 years ago.

  • I have been in the truck/coach trade as a tech for nearly fifty years and still work at this trade at age 71. The trade has been very good to me and has opened many doors over these years. I constantly try to recruit the young folks to enter the trade. The people who are in this trade and have a good attitude are the ones who should be talking to the high school students. I would do this without reservation and at no cost to anyone.