A driven young plumbing apprentice thrived under the high expectations and responsibility of working with the Coast Mountains School District maintenance crew this past year.
The school district employs several Grade 11/12 students as trades apprentices for one semester, or 480 hours, every year. It is part of an ACE-IT program (Accelerated Credit Enrolment in Industry Training) where students earn both high school and college credits.
This past year, those students were Terrace’s Bronson Johnson apprenticing in plumbing, Dannie Ruff apprenticing as an electrician and Kitimat’s Ben Pacheco in carpentry.
Johnson was in Grade 11 at the time and said he liked the apprenticeship because it enabled him to directly pursue a career.
“I liked being in the workforce,” said Johnson. “I liked that you are making credits towards something… it’s helping me to get my first year [of trades training]. It’s kind of like a jump start in life.”
Travis Elwood, school district maintenance manager, said they usually hire at least one student apprentice from Terrace, Kitimat and Hazelton every year.
Some students apply just to get out of school, but Elwood said they look for the students who are really interested in progressing in the trades.
They run the apprenticeship program like any other job, with apprentices paid for their work and treated the same as other employees.
“It’s a job, so if you show up late, if you are not performing, we are going to give you warnings and instructions,” he said, adding that they will terminate an apprenticeship if needed.
“They need to appreciate the importance of being on time, being productive with their time, all the things that go along with being a good employee,” Elwood explained.
For Johnson, the responsibility of being treated like an adult caused him to thrive.
Working with the school district plumber Jamie Birch for four months, February to May, Johnson did regular maintenance, fixed emergency leaks, helped with repiping and heating system upgrades in Kitimat and Terrace schools, and helped install a new dust extractor system at Caledonia Secondary in Terrace.
His favourite project was at Caledonia because he got the chance to test and prove his skills.
“I got quite a bit of freedom on that project,” Johnson said. “I did quite a bit of my own work and then Jamie would check it over… And the finished project was really quite nice. It was nice to have that accomplishment.”
Elwood said it was satisfying to see Johnson develop and be given more responsibility.
“He even did some soldering on his own, and that’s a lot of trust to be given by a journeyman,” Elwood said, adding that when they turn the water on, that is when they will find out if the soldering was done well.
Elwood said Birch and Johnson developed a good partnership this year, and worked like a well-oiled machine by the end of the four months.
“They went in, they each knew their roles: cutting, measuring, fitting things together,” Elwood said. “In the end, they walk out, clean up their mess, and they’re gone, but behind them, we’ll have a brand new system in place.”
Elwood said that all three trades apprentices this year put a lot of effort into their work and embraced the chance to get a positive local reference on their resumes.
“They wanted to perform,” Elwood said. “That was something we recognized early… every last one of them really wanted to do well.”
But the apprenticeships don’t just benefit students, they also provide the tradespeople with extra hands, yet Elwood said establishing that perspective did take some intentional work.
“We’ve worked hard to develop that culture,” said Elwood. “It’s not always fun to have a tag along, but our tradespeople work hard to make sure they have the right attitude.”
Jamie Birch agreed.
“You’re always a bit apprehensive at first… it is sometimes challenging to slow down and train someone when you have deadlines to meet,” he said. “But if you get students who are self-motivated and work hard, it’s good.”
Birch said he got his start in plumbing through a similar program at Caledonia back in 1998 and now it is “nice to see some smart, academic, good kids being directed into the trades.”
“I liked working with Bronson,” he added. “He is a self-motivated person who learned to adjust on the fly and problem solve as he went. Bronson showed initiative and had a great attitude every day at work.”
With the background work to get motivated students, Elwood said the school district’s tradespeople are happy to get apprentices to help, and they build friendships with the youth through it.
They save larger projects for when the students are there to help, which makes it easier for them and gives apprentices variety and a more well-rounded experience, he said.
For Johnson, it also helped him decide which trade to pursue.
He has been interested in trades for years, having done a lot of “handyman” work with his dad, Ed Johnson, working on his real estate.
“I always thought trades was the way to go,” Johnson said. “That is what my dad pushed for and I do like it. I like getting my hands dirty, not being on a computer but being the guy actually doing things.”
He initially considered becoming an electrician, but was persuaded by Birch, the school district plumber, of the merits of plumbing.
“Honestly, it’s not as dirty as they say,” Johnson said of the trade.
“There are a lot more technicalities involved, not just fixing toilets and sinks,” he explained, summarizing some of his work on re-piping and upgrading boiler rooms and heating systems.
He said that plumbing is also typically in town, unlike most electrical work, so most plumbers don’t have to travel far for work.
“There’s always going to be plumbing,” he added, “and you make fairly decent money.”
Johnson’s pursuit in the trade has also been affected by the possibility of working with his brother Brayden, who is 19 and also working toward his plumbing Red Seal certification.
“If you have a plumber and an electrician you can really tackle most projects without hiring other people,” Johnson said of initial plans to be an electrician.
But as he switched into plumbing, Johnson said there is a possibility he and his brother could start a plumbing business together.
Johnson will graduate from high school in 2017 and plans to get a local job in plumbing after that, where he wants to log 360 hours of work experience in one year.
Then he plans to go to the Piping Industry College in Delta and complete his first and second-level courses, which are six weeks each.
After that he will need to log another 180 work hours for level three and 240 hours for level four, as well as take the six and eight week courses and final exams to earn his Red Seal, which will certify him as a plumber across Canada.
“My goal is to get my Red Seal before I am 22,” he said.