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Building trades skills into career skills

illustration of a male and a female wearing hard hat discussing information on a  computer

Written by Michelle Woodard | Illustrations by Carl Wiens, i2i Art Inc. 


Future-proof your life in the trades with these career planning tools and resources.


In 2018, Peter Lauser was a 24-year-old graduate of two SAIT apprenticeship programs and a journeyman millwright on a maintenance crew up north. He was making good money as a foreman, he enjoyed teaching and mentoring new apprentices, and he appreciated the technical challenge and creativity of his trade. Lauser was working hard. And he was listening.

“I heard the older people in my industry talk about what they liked and didn’t like about their jobs — about the birthdays and anniversaries they missed, the holidays they worked through and what it was like to do such physically demanding work year after year. Then I thought about where I wanted to be in 20 or 30 years.”

And where Lauser wanted to be was in a job he could sustain in the long haul: one where he could work in town and make enough to support a family. He still wanted a hands-on job — just one with a good work/life balance and where he could sit at a desk for a couple of hours a day without being too sedentary.

So he set out to carve a career niche where he could act as an interpreter between the engineering and trades sides of the shop. He enrolled in SAIT’s Mechanical Engineering Technology program and traded his high-paying job up north for one in the city. It was a difficult move, but one that resulted in skills to make him more valuable to employers and a diploma that could act as a tiebreaker if he was up against another millwright for a job.

“I knew I could make more as a millwright than an engineering technologist, but getting this certification was about showcasing my analytical skills and academic training,” Lauser says.

“Now I’m a generalist who can see the bigger picture. I like to think that the right company would see the value in that.”

It’s a smart position to put yourself in, says Jim Szautner, Head of Trades, Dean of the School of Manufacturing and Automation and Dean of the School of Transportation. Standing out in a competitive job environment, he explains, isn’t only about doubling down on your technical skills — it can also involve developing other trades skill sets you already have.

Those skills, explains Szautner, include things like the ability to look beyond the surface to find the root cause of a problem, to work in a team environment, and to communicate effectively with people inside and outside of your trade. He calls them 21st-century skills and identifies four, in particular, that are essential to adapting in the future: creativity, critical thinking, curiosity and collaboration.

“A journeyperson certificate is a ticket to lifelong learning that makes you highly employable and gives you options, whether that’s working with a small, medium or large enterprise — or parlaying your apprenticeship into an entrepreneurial endeavour,” he says. “But today employers are looking at technical skill sets as table stakes, and seeking out people who also have other skills that can add to their organizational culture in a positive way.”

There are many ways to build the kind of “soft skills” employers are looking for and the business skills entrepreneurs need, says Szautner, including working with mentors, volunteering, continuing education and professional study opportunities.

Building soft skills

Nino Belvedere (PCK ’85, BA ’91), who is a Red Seal chef and SAIT Apprentice Coordinator active with Skills Canada, couldn’t agree more.

Thanks to his work with the annual regional, provincial, national and biennial world competitions, Belvedere has seen first-hand how gaining experience using soft skills — especially those connected to collaboration — is key.

“Learning the difference between being on a team and being part of a team is so important,” says Belvedere. “Making a positive contribution and collaborating well with others means being able to adapt, build relationships and manage conflict.”

As he trains apprentices to race the clock in Skills Canada competitions, Belvedere sees young tradespeople building an incredible number of skills — everything from emotional regulation, persistence and problem solving to time management, decision making and dealing with adversity.

But not everyone can compete as part of Skills, so Belvedere suggests volunteering — in your community or in your trade’s local and provincial apprenticeship committees — as another great way to hone those same soft skills.

“There is a lot to gain from contributing your time,” he says. “Not only are you learning with and from the people in those organizations, you’re also getting all the personal benefits that come from giving back.”

Building business skills

For those with an entrepreneurial bent, another route for adding to your trades knowledge and skillset is building a solid foundation of business skills — and that’s what Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training’s Blue Seal credential is all about.

Earning a Blue Seal involves taking 150 hours of business courses that can include everything from accounting, project management and conflict resolution to human resources, management skills and basic business law.

Claudia Jungert, Product Strategist for the Business and Leadership Portfolio with SAIT’s Centre for Continuing Education and Professional Studies, says the credential program’s flexibility allows tradespeople to customize their training and focus on the specific knowledge and skills they need to successfully shift off the tools and into the office.

“Within SAIT’s Applied Management Certificate, there are numerous courses that can be taken online or face to face, and that can be applied toward a Blue Seal certification,” Jungert says.

She suggests visiting sait.ca/blue-seal and emailing an advisor at conedadvising@sait.ca as the best way to get ahead.

Shifting gears and going digital

Almost every sector out there is navigating an influx of tech, says Lora Bucsis, Manager of Digital Adoption with the Centre for Continuing Education and Professional Studies.

The trades are no exception.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that journeyperson chefs, mechanics or carpenters need to learn to code. “Going digital is really about wanting to solve a problem and being open to different ways of using tech to do that,” says Bucsis.

“There is definitely a shortage of people in the business side of tech who can fill roles in areas like product management and user experience — it’s just that we don’t often hear about those opportunities.

“Digital is a great option for people in the trades because they are experts in their field and understand how things work,” Bucsis says. “That means they can easily see how to use tech to add value, streamline processes and incorporate things like automation or machine learning.”

To help mid-career professionals across all sectors gain a competitive advantage in filling those tech roles, SAIT offers a number of bootcamps in UX Design, machine learning, product management and robotic process automation (RPA).

“We want to inspire people and give them a different perspective on the trajectory their career might take,” says Bucsis.

The most important trait when considering a shift to digital? “An open mind,” says Bucsis. “Making a change when you’ve been in a career for a long time isn’t easy, but there are a lot of exciting opportunities out there for people who are feeling stuck and haven’t been able to find the right trajectory for their careers.”

Getting help charting your path

Whether you are a journeyperson looking for a new job, considering more business training or thinking about shifting to digital, Erin Boyle (MGMT ’10), Manager of Career Advancement Services, wants you to know one thing: SAIT apprenticeship alumni have access to every one of SAIT’s career services, including the job board on My Career Hub.

“At any given time, there are a couple of hundred job postings from employers who are specifically looking for SAIT grads, including those in trades,” says Boyle.

My Career Hub also offers a collection of templates, checklists and resources that apprenticeship alumni can use for everything from resumé building to preparing for interviews. There’s even information about leveraging LinkedIn.

All you need to access mycareerhub.sait.ca is your SAIT student ID. If you can't remember it, don't worry — the Office of the Registrar can help you retrieve it. Reach out to them at 403.284.7248 or inquiry@sait.ca.

“More companies are relying on the LinkedIn platform to find and connect with people in all fields,” says Boyle. Once you have a strong resumé, she says, it’s pretty easy to transfer that to a LinkedIn profile, and once you’re set up you can connect with people and follow companies you’re interested in. “If there’s a company you really want to work for, don’t be afraid to use LinkedIn to connect with them – that’s what the platform is for.”

Career advisors are also available for all alumni to consult for virtual one-on-one consultations on everything from practice interviews, to highlighting transferable skills on a resumé, to setting career goals and charting a path to get there.

Don't stop until the whistle blows

As for Lauser, he’s just rounded another corner on his own career path. Just a few months ago, he graduated from the MET program at the top of his class, earning the 2021 Governor General’s Academic Medal.

His best advice for others interested in broadening their skills and expanding their learning? Don’t stop until the whistle blows.

“Going back to school wasn’t easy, but what I learned during my experiences competing provincially, nationally and internationally with Skills Canada when I attended SAIT for the first time was to keep working and using the time I had until I got the result I wanted,” he says. “I may not have been the smartest person in my class, but I was dedicated and studious.”

And while Lauser doesn’t have any specific plans for his next learning experience, he hasn’t ruled anything out either. “I know it sounds cliché, but I really do believe in lifelong learning — whether it’s through a traditional route or not. Your brain is a muscle and you need to keep learning new things to keep it healthy.”

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This story was originally written for the Fall 2021 print issue of LINK.


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