The last time Bill Johnstone sat down in a classroom, it was the 1980s.
Going back to school was “no cake walk,” but the Whitehorse resident is one of 10 carpenters who recently obtained their Red Seal certifications following an intense six-week program.
It’s the first time the course was offered in the Yukon.
Carpentry is one of 55 trades in the Red Seal program, which represents an inter-provincial standard of excellence in the industry.
Johnstone, 50, said a lot has changed since he first started working as a carpenter in British Columbia.
“For the longest time it really wasn’t that big of a deal if you didn’t have the certification,” he said.
“People were more interested in your work experiences. They’d say ‘OK, what work have you done, show me what you can do.’
“It’s not as important in the residential market, but it really is for the big industrial jobs.”
Johnstone and 12 other carpenters from around the territory took the course on Friday evenings and Saturdays this spring.
The exam covers four years of the apprenticeship program. It’s broken down into six modules, covering topics such as framing, renovations, concrete and common occupational skills.
Johnstone said the hardest part was the math, and the abundance of required readings.
“The way the instructor structured the course, it’s pretty daunting during the first few weekends because we got a lot of readings, it’s heavy on the technical side,” he said.
“He did that deliberately to give everyone the full six weeks to get used to it. I thought, ‘If it keeps up like this, I’ll be in trouble,’ but it got easier.”
Carpenters were required to prove they had worked a minimum of 9,600 hours in the trade in order to take the course.
Richard Dickenson, from Integrated Carpentry Tutorials, offered the course through Yukon’s advanced education branch and in collaboration with the British Columbia Regional Council of Carpenters.
He said the course is as much about introducing new skills as it is brushing up on old ones.
A significant portion of the course is also focused on teaching the students how to take a university-level exam, how to focus on key words and not be misdirected.
“By the second module, these guys were starting to peer mentor each other,” Dickenson said.
“That’s a big deal – you don’t really know how much you know about something until you’re asked to teach it. That just reinforces it for everybody.”
He estimates that approximately 60 to 70 apprentice carpenters are bottlenecked in the four-year apprenticeship program at Yukon College because there aren’t enough Red Seal certified carpenters to sign off on their hours, allowing them to move to the next level.
“This will go a long way towards correcting that.”
Matthew Myres, who does custom home renovations and furniture, wanted to become Red Seal certified so he could take on some of those apprentices in his business.
“Up here there aren’t many self-employed Red Seals,” he said.
“I haven’t been able to apprentice anyone but doing so will allow me to expand my business.”
Jeff Sloychuk, the representative for Local 2499 in Whitehorse, said it’s a program the union had always wanted to offer but never could.
“All these carpenters had worked thousands of hours but had never had the opportunity to get apprenticeship, to get the actual schooling part of the trade,” he said. “There was a huge gap in the ‘80s and ‘90s where the apprenticeship program was in a bit of disarray. From the union’s perspective it’s really important that we keep pushing the boundaries of the trade, and ensuring that we’re providing the best quality carpenters to home owners and employers.”
Sloychuk estimates there are about 100 working carpenters in the territory.
“But we’re looking to double that as we go forward.”
Approximately 30 more uncertified carpenters from across the territory have expressed an interest in taking Dickenson’s course, Sloychuk said, so the union will bring him back in February next year to offer it again.
Contact Myles Dolphin at