Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft Discusses Expanding Their Efforts and Going Virtual During the Pandemic

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Dec 18, 2020

By Blake Marchand

The Ontario government recently announced a major investment in the skilled trades and a revamped apprenticeship program, a move that was applauded by Skills Ontario. Skills Canada/Ontario will play big role in that mandate when it comes to increasing awareness of the opportunities the skill trades present to young people. The organization has been working hard during the pandemic, expanding their team and broadening their mandate, with the help of additional funding from the Ontario government (aside from the aforementioned skilled trades investment).

“We had started discussion with the government prior to the pandemic, and I think the pandemic just presented a different way of doing things,” said Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft of their expanded virtual efforts. The organization has launched a number of virtual efforts to continue to promote skilled trades during the pandemic, their #SkillsAtHome Challenge Series, as well as moving their annual summer camps and conferences online.

Next May they will be holding a virtual skills conference and competition, already having put one together this year. Their Young Women’s Conference held this past May had 1,400 people sign on. “We weren’t sure what to expect, so I was really impressed with those numbers.”

In terms of the new apprenticeship system being developed, Skills Ontario’s role will be to continue to present the trades as an option earlier on. Howcroft noted that the average age of someone starting an apprenticeship in Ontario is 28. “What we want to do is make sure younger people are aware of these opportunities so they can get into it earlier. If that’s your career path, why wait 10 years? Find out about it now, and by the time you’re 28, you can have a secure, lucrative career rather than waiting and potentially missing those opportunities.”

Howcroft was in the manufacturing sector for 30 years prior to joining Skills Ontario, working with Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, he explained. “Every year, for those 30 years I was there, there were skills and competency shortages. I know how much of a challenge it is and that we need to make sure we’re creating a skilled workforce for the future.”

The focus of late has been to broaden Skills Ontario’s efforts, to get into more schools and start introducing the skilled trades to a younger age range, “to make sure kids are aware of what opportunities there are. There does seem to be some stigma and negativity around the skilled trades or technology careers.”

A major mandate is making sure the realities of the sector are clear. That includes educating parents on the career paths that are available. Ultimately, to break down misconceptions and show how lucrative and how challenging these jobs are. “What we need are bright individuals to pursue a career in the skilled trades to make sure we have the workers of the future. Our increased portion from the government gave us the opportunity to see more kids and start doing some regional outreach to various communities, enhancing the great relationships we have with the school boards, and with other partners in the college system, the union sector. To make sure that we’re all working in concert. We’re trying to be collaborative and share information, rather than working in silos.”

Howcroft added that if all stake holders aren’t working together it will be difficult to maximize “the full value of the investments being made.”

The pandemic obviously limits what Skills Ontario can do in terms of in-person outreach and getting in front of students, but they’ve worked hard to increase their reach virtually.

“What we’ve learned is there’s going to be an ongoing role for remote engagement. We normally have a summer camp program and about 400 kids come to our summer camps. We did it all virtually this year,” he said. “We had about 800 kids that engaged. It was a different engagement, but it showed there was an interest and an opportunity.”

When the possibility for in-person events and summer camps returns, there will still be those who can’t attend, so adding the virtual offering will allow them to expand their reach that much more.

With that element, Howcroft said, “We’ve learned that we can be impactful, we can be effective, but we recognize there is a real important role for the hands- on, experiential opportunities, as well. So, we look forward to getting back to that when we can.”

Skills Ontario conducts 1500 to 2000 in-person presentations per year throughout Ontario schools, so they needed to find a way to bridge that gap, keeping health and safety front of mind, during the pandemic.Rollercoaster Challenge Winner

That’s what inspired their #SkillsAtHome Challenge Series, so they could continue to engage kids in a fun, skills related way.

“Some schools started to incorporate it into their curriculum,” he noted.

“We’ve had more time to plan and put together our offering and adapt our programing, we’ve had about 800 requests for virtual school presentations.”

The engagement has been strong, considering their limitations. They’re still not reaching as many students as they otherwise would, but the interest is there. Once things get back to ‘normal’, they’ll be well positioned with a multifaceted approach to educating students.

Beyond their programming, Skills Ontario is working with parents, holding roundtables, working with businesses, and engaging with other industry stakeholders, “we’re doing all that we can do to make sure we’re still impactful, that we’re still raising the opportunities to various groups, so that we don’t lose momentum because of the pandemic. We’re moving forward as best we can and there seems to be a lot interest.”

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Top right photo shows the winner of the #SkillsAtHome Roller Coaster Challenge. From left to right is the winner of the Cookie Challenge, Bridge Challenge, and the prize package awarded by Skills Ontario.

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