As the construction industry grapples with an ongoing labour shortage, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) is making strides to attract more young people to the skilled trades through a variety of outreach programs to junior high and high school students as well as young adults.
Through its partnership with Procore, a leading global provider of construction management software, SAIT is also preparing its current students for the new digital workflows that are becoming increasingly common on jobsites, as the construction industry continues adopting technology to operate more efficiently.
A rewarding career option for high schoolers
One way SAIT connects with youth is through its dual credit programs, which allow high school students to earn postsecondary credits. These programs carry no tuition fees for families.
“It’s a really great opportunity for high school students that might not have access to these opportunities within their own high schools,” says Rozlynn Wick, Project Manager, Strategic Youth Initiatives at SAIT. “It can be a good way for them to identify if they want to continue to pursue a particular program or career pathway. If they decide ‘That’s not for me, I want to specialize in something else,’ then that’s a win as well because the process has helped them find a direction.”
This exposure to SAIT’s skilled trades programs shows students the possibilities available to them.
“The biggest takeaway from the program for these students is the confidence to know that they’re capable of doing post-secondary work, and the feeling of community and inclusiveness,” says Wick. “They learn there is a place for them on campus.”
SAIT also works closely with the school’s Chinook Lodge Resource Centre to provide dual credit opportunities for Indigenous youth.
Wick says students of SAIT’s pre-employment skilled trades programs report greater motivation and confidence in themselves, and a better understanding of what their next steps are going to be.
Jobs for the future
Working in the skilled trades doesn’t necessarily mean doing jobs traditionally associated with the field.
“I think there’s a lot of conversation happening right now about changing the perception around skilled trades and changing the prestige around it,” says Wick. “A career in the trades creates interesting opportunities. Take electric vehicles; who’s going to work on those electric vehicles? Or an electrician might go work in solar. There are interesting career pathways.”
Canadian Construction Association president Mary Van Buren spoke on this theme at an industry event earlier this year. She said the perception of the industry as old-fashioned has made it difficult to secure government investment for innovation.
“I think there’s a bit of that perception in Canadian society; people see construction as the flag person on the street. They don’t see the complexity of the industry. They don’t see the project managers, the engineers, the estimators, or the crane operators. And that’s up to us as an industry to show how exciting construction is and the skill level required,” explains Van Buren.
Attracting women to the skilled trades
In addition to its programs aimed at high school students, SAIT works to reach girls in junior high.
The school recently ran a Jill of All Trades event that connected 45 women in the trades with groups of junior high students. The tradespeople chatted about the journeys they took entering professions such as carpentry, welding, glazing, roofing and bricklaying.
“It was amazing,” says Wick. “I think that representation is really important.”
Lisa Weatherby, Dean of Academic Services at SAIT, adds: “The goal is to expose young women to some of the opportunities that might be available to them, and to also help build their confidence in a space where they might not realize that they’re capable.”
At SAIT, women made up 26 per cent of the fall 2022 cohort in SAIT’s School of Construction programs with seven per cent in its Bachelor of Science in Construction Management, 39 per cent in both its Bachelor of Applied Technology Geographic Information Systems program and Architectural Technologies programs, and 17 per cent in the Civil Engineering Technology program.
Programs such as Jill of All Trades are intended to get girls thinking about construction professions early, and help grow representation of women in SAIT’s future cohorts.
“Once you get to a critical mass of women being 20 to 25 per cent of a class, it becomes easier for the women’s perspective to influence the classroom. The classroom becomes more inclusive,” Weatherby says.
Teaching tech skills needed on modern job sites
In the classroom, SAIT familiarizes students with construction management software that is increasingly displacing pen-and-paper methods in the industry.
Lahiru Silva is an engineer, researcher and consultant who teaches at SAIT. In his project management course, he discusses the differences between old-fashioned methods and newer construction management technology such as Procore. The software is provided to SAIT by Procore.org, Procore’s social impact arm.
“Having access to Procore helps us demonstrate the tech skills needed in construction,” says Silva. “It helps us pursue the younger generation, who grew up playing video games and are already involved with technology. These systems are not difficult for them.”
Contractors using Procore have also noticed how youths’ familiarity with technology can translate to project management roles.
Silva says construction technology introduced in the classroom helps mimic real industry applications and the collaborative environment students will encounter when they enter the workforce.
“Some students say they got a job because they were fluent with Procore,” says Silva. “The industry is looking for people who already have the technical know-how, rather than having to teach tech skills from scratch.”
Simulating real-world dynamics
Another SAIT instructor, Tareq Baker, has been using Procore in the classroom for about three years. So far, approximately 100 students have used the platform in his classes.
Through Procore, Baker’s students develop estimates, schedules, budgets and daily logs, and also work with project drawings. Baker tries to simulate the working relationship between construction companies by having one group of students act as a general contractor and “hire” another group from the class as a subcontractor.
“This gives the students the feeling of the flow between a general contractor and subcontractor.”
In the future, Baker intends to take students into the field to show them how construction management technology functions in a jobsite setting.
“Because I have unlimited user access, I’m able to add as many students as I want. That helps the usability of the software in the classroom,” says Baker.
Students can also complete select training modules from Procore, such as Project Management and Financial Management. These credentials can boost resumes by demonstrating readiness to work with the platform on real construction projects.
Advancing the next gen workforce
Attracting more people to the skilled trades is a complex issue. SAIT’s nuanced approach addresses many parts of it. Through its various outreach programs, the school educates young students about the benefits of a career in construction. Its dual credit programs help high school students decide if the path is right for them. The school also works to attract more young women to the industry. Once they arrive at SAIT, students work with the same software used by Canadian construction companies. SAIT sets a forward-thinking example for how to advance the next generation workforce in construction and set up students and the industry for future success.
Procore.org launched its universities program in 2016 to donate Procore’s software and training to construction professionals looking to upskill their students. Today, more than 250 construction management, civil engineering, and architecture programs have free access to Procore’s software and educational resources.
If you are an educator in Canada and would like to obtain a free Procore account for your school, please visit procore.org or email email@example.com for more information.