The rewarding world of skills #HereAtSAIT

Two cabinetmakers stand beside finished cabinet projects.

Two apprentices share why they chose a career in the trades and a snapshot of their learning pathway to journeyperson at SAIT.

Natalya Fernandez: Electrician

High school was barely in the rear-view mirror when Natalya Fernandez started a camper conversion company with a couple of friends. Taking a van from an eight-seater to a home-on-wheels sparked her initial interest in becoming an electrician, since there are many electrical components involved in the process. She decided to find work with a construction crew, and begin the apprenticeship journey at SAIT.  

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The learning journey for an apprentice is a rotation of school and work — two months of in-class learning at SAIT followed by time spent on the job site. 

“I think it’s a really enjoyable way to learn,” says Fernandez. The part that makes the schooling easier is that you see a lot of it hands-on,” she says. 

Being a woman in the trades comes with some challenges, but Fernandez says she’s been blessed to find a crew that respects and welcomes her (even though it’s annoying when they use her outhouse). She says the world of skilled trades is changing, and though it’s not yet perfect, diversity is improving

While on the path to becoming an electrician, Fernandez finds comfort in knowing that every journeyperson has been in her shoes, as the apprentice, and appreciates the empathy she receives while learning.

“Journeymen don’t show you something and expect you to know it right away, because odds are, they didn’t know it when they were shown the first time. They understand the hurdles that come with learning new things.”

She views the title of “journeyperson” as a great equalizer: once you’re qualified, you’re on even ground with all others who also hold the title in their trade.

Natalya’s advice for future apprentices:

  1. Don’t be afraid of working for different employers and trying different electrical routes (industrial, residential or commercial) during your apprenticeship. Use your time as an apprentice to see what you enjoy doing most. Once you’re a journeyperson, the specific stream you choose will become your focus.
  2. See school as an extension of work — go in with the mindset to apply what you’ve been taught.
  3. Being skilled in a trade can come in handy to find work because the world needs builders.

Jonathan Straub: Cabinetmaker

Jonathan Straub (on the right) with a finished cabinet ready to be delivered to a client.
Jonathan Straub (on the right) with a finished cabinet ready to be delivered to a client.

Taking a simple piece of wood, transforming it into a beautiful cabinet, delivering it to a customer and seeing a smile stretch across their face — that’s what makes Jonathan Straub’s work in cabinetmaking worth it every time.

Straub’s grandpa was a cabinetmaker, and watching his grandpa work his craft carved the way for his own woodworking journey. After high school shop class, his teachers and friends in woodworking encouraged him to go to SAIT and pursue cabinetmaking.

Two years into a woodworking job, he found a company with a journeyperson willing to apprentice him, giving him the opportunity to pursue the program at SAIT.

Straub is strong in math and says he learns best hands-on, both valuable for the cabinetmaking program. His favourite part of his apprenticeship has been delving into the history of construction, including learning about geometrics used by the Aztecs, artistic components found in Pompeii and nature-inspired construction techniques from Japan. Learning about these traditions inspires his own work. And he’s been given lots of creative freedom in his program at SAIT.

He credits his instructors for pushing him to get better every time, and not let any time in class go to waste.

“It’s not, ‘Okay you’re done this project, you’re done for the day.’ It’s, ‘Go try something else. Re-do the dovetail and see if you can get 100% instead of 90.’ They pushed me to really get that excellence in my head, which is needed for what we do. 

Jonathan's final project for his second year in the cabinetmaking program.
Jonathan's final project for his second year in the cabinetmaking program.

“They allow you to express what you want to do, don’t limit you and let you learn how you learn. It’s quite amazing,” he says.

With a couple years remaining in his apprenticeship, Straub’s goal is to become a high school construction teacher — inspired by the impact shop teachers had on his life. He also enjoys working with youth and wants to help them towards excellence in woodworking.

Jonathan’s words of wisdom:

  1. If you know nothing, start with the pre-employment program at SAIT. It will teach you the basics and the tools you need to succeed.
  2. Trades are fun! You get the satisfaction of seeing a product made from start to finish.
  3. The instructors at SAIT will meet you where you’re at, so don’t worry about your current level of ability.

Competing at Skills

In March, SAIT hosted high school students for Skills competitions, which inspired Straub to pursue teaching. Skills is like the Olympics for the trades. Competing in Skills provides opportunities for high school students to explore and start their journey in trades, and for SAIT students under the age of 25 to showcase their abilities.

In May, SAIT was the most decorated Alberta post-secondary institution at the Skills Canada competitions, bringing home 34 medals at provincials and six medals in Winnipeg at nationals. 

Next up, Noah Harding (Plumbing) and Tyler Cherkowski (Refrigeration and Air Conditioning) will join Team Canada at WorldSkills 2024 in Lyon, France.

Apprenticeships and Trades

Start your path to becoming a qualified journeyperson in one of more than 30 trades. Find all the tips and tricks on registering for an apprenticeship, financial resources and next steps here.

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