If you drove through Whitehorse’s industrial area Thursday, the Skills Canada building would have seemed like any other vacant building in the darkened neighbourhood.
Only a tiny patch of light shining from a small window hinted at activity within.
There, before two long worktables, stood two pairs of people in dust-flecked shirts, and one instructor holding a travel mug and the master plan.
The buzz of an electric drill occasionally cut through the room’s relative quiet, and the sweet fragrance of wood chips filled the air.
The drill was held in the nimble hands of James Jensen.
The 13-year-old has a keen eye for carpentry, and was screwing together the last few pieces of a deacon’s bench.
The bench was a team effort between the teenager and his mom, Wendy Fox. The pair were part of Skills Canada’s four-week, parent-child carpentry course.
Fox stood back from the bench, and watched her son with a smile.
“He catches on very easy,” she said a few minutes later.
The bright orange tape measure and a pencil stub on the table marked the growth of their project, but it is the pride in Fox’s voice that measures what the class has done for their relationship.
The weekly group is one of the few interests she shares with her teenage son, said Fox, a single mom.
The project has taught the pair how to work together, and has reminded Fox of Jensen’s abilities.
“He’s grown up quicker than I thought,” she said.
“His self-esteem is great. He’s not shy. He’s digging into it, and making a beautiful piece of furniture.”
Brenda Dion, the mom working at the second table, also said the class was a way to bond with her son, Andrew Walchuk.
“It’s been a really good combination for us,” said Dion.
The class also exposed Andrew to another career possibility, she said.
“I wanted to introduce him to this skill in case he wants to take it further.”
Those are the sentiments instructor Kelly Ogle wants to hear. Skills Canada’s mandate is to involve youth in the trades.
A key component in doing that is to have parents see the value in learning them, he said.
While both moms had good things to say about the trades as a career option for their kids, touting the trades isn’t always easy.
The industry has a bad reputation, said Ogle.
“Trades are perceived as non-intelligent; in other words, you only go into trades if you’re a dummy,” he said.
“It also has a reputation of being perceived as dirty, hard, physical work.”
Trades fell out of favour for a number of reasons, including the education system’s increasing emphasis on academic subjects in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, said Ogle.
“We’ve been told, and been pushed by our education system to go to university because you couldn’t possibly be happy or make anything of your life until going to university. That’s true for some, but not for all.”
Technology, like computers, also shifted interest away from trades.
“Why go out, be a labourer and work in the muck in the trenches, or be a plumber, or someone who gets their hands dirty, when you could sit in an office all day and supposedly make better money,” said Ogle.
An increase in mass communication and the advertising that infiltrated it didn’t enhance the image of the tradesperson either.
“They (advertisements) all showed the Madison Avenue approach to what a young man and a young women should look like, and it had nothing to do with trades.”
The negative perception of trades may change with the next generation, however, especially in Whitehorse, where the building boom continues at a rapid rate.
A trade would provide a safe, reliable job that pays well, said Walchuk.
Most of his friends think the same way, and a few are considering going that route, he said.
Walchuk isn’t sure what he’ll do after graduating from high school, but he is not ruling out the trades.
The class peaked his interest, he said.
“It showed me what skills I possessed.”
While youth involvement in trades may be increasing, 25 years of poor press, educational indifference and new technology has taken its toll.
There is a massive shortage of skilled tradespeople in Canada.
According to Statistics Canada, the country could be short one million workers by 2020.
As an independent tradesman, Ogle has seen the evidence firsthand. For eight years, he was busy framing, dry walling, plumbing and painting in Whitehorse.
Though he switched to a government job two years ago, his spare time is often consumed by carpentry jobs.
Basic knowledge about how to fix household items has also become endangered as a result of the trades’ low profile in recent decades.
“As more people got away from trades, then more mothers and fathers were not capable of fixing stuff on their own, and couldn’t pass that information to their kids.
“Most kids can figure out how to program a VCR, but they can’t figure out how to fix a door.”
Fox received some trades training when she worked on log houses in her 20s, but she still had to hire a handyman when she owned a trailer.
The class is her way of passing on carpentry skills to her son.
“Even if they don’t do it as a career, they can do things around the house and it’s more satisfying.”
The class also gave the mothers an opportunity to hone their skills.
Dion knew little about power tools when she entered the class. In fact, the first time she tried to use a skill saw she cut its power cord, she said with a laugh.
Dion appreciated Ogle’s no-assumption approach to teaching.
The class learned how to use a tape measure, operate a circular saw, and everything in between.
Dion now feels comfortable using power tools, she said.
“I may not be able to build a house, but I can go home and pick up a skill saw without chopping the cord off.”
Ogle has taught three parent-child courses in the seven years he has volunteered with Skills Canada.
Eleven pairs have taken his classes, but no father has yet signed up.
“I think the women want the knowledge more than the men do,” said Ogle.
“Some of the men might not want to come out because they might find out that the work they’ve been doing is not quite right, or maybe they won’t be as good as they think they are.”
Perhaps the lack of fathers has to do the novice nature of the courses, said Dion.
“Maybe because it’s basic. Maybe the men have the skills already.”
It’s what you learn, not your gender that counts in his class, said Ogle.
At Thursday’s final class, two assembled deacon’s benches stood as testament to the amount both parents and kids absorbed.
“You come away with a free bench, as well as the feeling you’ve created something,” said Walchuk.
For more information about Skills Canada programs call 668-2709.