The Training Challenge

There are only two things you need to know to be a plumber,” an old-timer once told me. “Sewage runs downhill and payday is Friday.” However, since he was a multi-million-dollar plumbing supply company owner with the exclusive contract for plumbing fixtures at a major university, it is reasonable to guess there was more to it than he said.
Concurrently with the old-timer’s thumbnail description of what it takes to be a plumber, people were flocking to trade schools and turning their backs on university educations. Ph.D.s in anthropology were flipping burgers at McDonald’s the conventional wisdom said. And besides, even if you could get a job as a professor of anthropology, you could make more money as a plumber.
It wasn’t long before high school guidance counselors and employment experts began pushing people to become computer technicians, accurately predicting the huge demand but missing entirely the bust that followed. Computer technicians today are flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

 It is no wonder today’s young people are confused. Technology is moving at such a pace that nobody can keep track, despite assurances to the contrary. People that could tear a car apart and put it back together in 1970 with a wrench set, a feeler gauge and a lift, today have the option of working on very old cars or paying somebody that’s properly trained in modern automotive diagnostics. Computer techs that know Cobol and Fortran inside-out, have inside-out knowledge of nothing-and-getting-less.
Who can be surprised if today’s young people seem especially angry? If they look at the track record, a university Ph.D. is no guarantee of a good job (no knock intended on McDonald’s), and a technical certificate is no guarantee, either. Small wonder the youth are discontented.
The problem is compounded when you look at where young people get their information.
Terry Luhoway, a career advisor with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) does a great deal of that school’s high school recruiting, and he believes students at the high school level are heavily influenced by outside, non-practical inputs: “If I hear one more CSI or forensic question ….” He lets the phrase fade as he adds, “But when they find out that the reality of those fields is very different from television, their enthusiasm vanishes.
Luhoway is more positive about NAIT’s average student — a person that is more likely to be 23 years old for the business programs and 27 for the petroleum engineer field of study. “The number one reason (for the program choice) on the survey they fill out,” says Luhoway, “is to have a career.” Closely following that reason, he says, are NAIT’s high placement rates and potential wages.
Additionally, he says, among the top three most popular programs in terms of numbers applying, the health services sector rates high because of demand for professionals: a certificate in one of these programs is a ticket to work in the States, says Luhoway, “and these kids know it.”
Another thing the kids know is that old folks like to show flow charts with life choices lined out in little boxes with lines going here and there. For some, it works. The more interesting question, however, is “what’s in it for me?”

One hard knock against Canada’s wood industry is its chronically low wages. But how big a knock is it? According to Mike McClements, associate vice president at Ontario’s Conestoga College, there may be hundreds of applicants vying for each available seat in some popular programs. And those programs cannot promise either the placement rate or the wages available in woodworking.

If you look closely again at what Luhoway said, however, there is something other than wages at work. Some students are making a bid to move south, and a trade certificate is a ticket to a gren card.
How do they know it? Arguably, they know it the same way the high school kids know about CSI and forensics: they are susceptible to outside, non-practical inputs.
This aspect of teens and young adults (and old adults, for that matter) is the foundation upon which the entire discipline of marketing is founded. The susceptibility of young people to outside, non-practical inputs creates a market for Transformers, light sabers, rap music and tongue jewelry.
Are these market demands pure serendipity? Of course not — no more than “jewel colours” or brushed nickel are serendipitous in interior design. They are the result of direct marketing campaigns with the youth as the target market.

An interesting question to ask, from a marketing perspective, is whether youth that were interested in wood careers 40 or 50 years ago were exposed more as toddlers to trucks, tools and wood materials (figures, building blocks, vehicles), and whether toddlers 15 years ago (today’s college-ready young people) were exposed more to fantasy characters and creatures, fantasy vehicles and plastic and electric components.
Certainly, kids of 50 years ago had fantasy creatures and plastic. But it is still an interesting question.
According to Bill Bishop, managing director of Cossette Communications’ Alias Urban Marketing in Vancouver, the pursuit of understanding of youth by the marketing community has certainly increased.” And, he says, “a big component of youth marketing is researching the market.”
This has had the effect of not only understanding the desires and consumer demands of young people, but it gives clues in how to approach those young people with new ideas that they will pay for. This is the definition of marketing: you approach a target with an idea to create a demand.
This begs the obvious question: what has the wood industry (or any other trade, for that matter) done in the way of marketing?
One answer is WoodLinks. Established in British Columbia in 1996, WoodLinks is, in part, a marketing program aimed at introducing high school students to careers in wood. You can read more about WoodLinks on page 24 of this issue, or you can log on at Importantly, the federal government has provided funding to make WoodLinks available across Canada.
However, that does not entirely address the question of marketing to youth. By high school, most young people have already been introduced to issues and images they either “like” or “don’t like.” Peer pressure at the high school level is almost impossible to overcome, so unless a student has a predisposition to get involved in woodworking in high school, the pressure to be interested in CSI and forensics is a high hurdle to overcome.

A quick answer might be to re-introduce wood toys and more practical models of toys at the day-care level: get kids thinking about wood. But the quick retort would be that paint is not healthy, kids could get splinters and wood hurts if you hit people with it. Also, the environmental contingent that seems so active enforcing choices at the elementary school level would raise objections, at least on a local and regional basis.
Or maybe the right answer is not the quick answer. Possibly young people should be introduced to woodworking at the middle school level. There is the issue of sharps to deal with, but sanding and finishing could provide an approach.
More importantly, the question of how to get young people interested must be answered, not just for woodworking, but for all the trades. Not everyone can be a movie star; not everyone should go to university.
It seems that thinking, talking and politicking have provided the training resources, but have not provided the students. Professional marketers have demonstrated a huge success in providing an energized, focused market for light sabers and nose rings. The next worthwhile question might be whether they can help educate young people that careers in trades are stable, productive, lucrative and, most of all, satisfying.
The old-timer was right: sewage runs downhill and payday is Friday. But he also drove whatever car he wanted to, and a new one every year. And so do quite a few wood manufacturers. Of course, there are no guarantees of wealth in the trades. Then again, people don’t talk about the glut of unemployed lawyers. The fact is, there are no income guarantees for anybody.
However, the path is clear. The trades can provide wealth. But more importantly, they can provide a job that is fun to do, people that are good to work with and a skill that can be demonstrated and displayed. The problem is, once you have spent your resources on a forestry certificate and discovered you are stuck in a low-wage job spreading bark chips and cleaning washrooms, it is often too late to go back and make the right choice.
So the answer arises: it is time for the industry to look for professionals to help those kids make choices.

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