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Meet Joe Ross: owner of Ross Air Systems in Pickering, employer of skilled tradespersons and apprentices, a skilled tradesman himself.  Joe runs a small sheet metal contracting business with four to six employees (sheet metal workers) and an apprentice.  When talking with Joe, it doesn’t take long to realize he’s passionate about the skilled trades, and especially about informing young people about the opportunities and the realities of it.  High school teachers invite him to speak to their classes.  In his presentations, he introduces all the trades; he talks about the difference between residential and commercial work; he covers wages and benefits, apprenticeship, employment issues; he stresses health and safety awareness; and he outlines the benefits of being in a trade.  At the end of his presentation to classes, he offers his personal help to anyone who is genuinely interested in getting into a skilled trade.  He usually gets one or two takers.

Joe believes in the apprenticeship process and the responsibility of employers to provide good training.  The fact that his apprenticeship training was somewhat limited, has made him the excellent trainer that he is today.  His philosophy is that employers have to give apprentices the opportunity to take on responsibilities as their skill level increases.  The employers must make it clear what their expectations are, and then follow up on it.  When the apprentice makes a mistake, turn it into a learning opportunity for them.

QUESTIONS FROM tradeability.ca

What attracted you to your trade?  What path did you take?

“I took shop classes in high school during Grades 10 -12.  Actually, I was always exposed to the skilled trades because my father was in the sheet metal trade.  He literally built everything for our family — even a house, doing most of the framing, masonry, plumbing, etc.  He built us a go-cart and a mini bike, all made from scratch, with no plans.  He made it look so easy – he is a true tradesman.  So that was my “in” to the sheet metal trade, straight from Grade 12.”

What is a highlight of your career?

“Thinking back, I would say the highlight was starting my own business – no money, no shop, no equipment, no truck, no employees, not a cent from the bank, and no payment for work completed.  You learn, and learn fast!”

What benefits have you gained from working in the skilled trades?

“Knowledge – the kind you can’t find in the classroom.”

What were the biggest  challenges?

“As a business owner, it’s sometimes difficult to find work when you really need it, and then juggling projects when you have too much work.  It’s also a challenge finding quality tradespeople during these times, as there seems to be a shortage.”

What do you enjoy most about your work?

“The thing I really enjoy about my work is gaining the trust and confidence of a new client so that we can price or bid on work for them.”

Why do you choose to train apprentices?

“I have a small company.   Since we do so many different small projects during the course of a year, my apprentices are exposed to many facets of our trade at a fast rate.  I really rely on them to work with and help the mechanics every day.

I remember one apprentice I had for two and a half years.  Due to a learning disability, he could barely write his own name.  He somehow made it through high school.  However, if you showed him something just once, he could do it.  He always kept busy, and he was well organized.  I tried to get him into adult education classes so he could get through the in-school portion of his trades training, but he ended up frustrated and left one day.  He moved somewhere up north and I never heard from him again.  I felt somehow I had let him down.”

Tell us about your times as an apprentice and how it affected you.

“My apprenticeship was nothing to brag about:  truck driver, coffee boy, material handler – for three years, 1977 – 1980.  That’s what a lot of apprentices did in those days because crews on jobsites were larger then.  I remember working for a small sheet metal outfit for a year or so.  There were only two of us and we would measure on site, fabricate in the shop and then install.  That’s where I started to enjoy the trade.”

How do you view some of the challenges of apprenticeships?

“Not everyone in an apprenticeship will become a tradesperson.  Some shouldn’t be in the trades.  I think aptitude tests should incorporate some testing for dexterity skills.  That’s why exposure to skilled trades at the high school level is so important.

Exposure at the high school level to all trades is important for identifying those with mechanical skills and dexterity.  I don’t think it’s enough for the Boards of Education to just throw in a couple of wood shops and feel that they have done their part in assisting skilled trades in this province.  The presentations I give at high schools may also shed some light as to what the workplace or job sites are really like.”

Do you have any words to employers?

“I think most employers today are on board training apprentices.  Let’s face it, if you have an apprentice who can work on their own alongside a mechanic, you are benefiting because they are producing.  Sure it requires some up-front work but when you give them responsibilities, they in turn become responsible.”

Do you have any words of advice to potential apprentices?

“Here’s what I would suggest:

  •  Choose a trade you can enjoy.  Visiting some local businesses can help you decide.
  • Show up and be on time.
  • Save your pay stubs and fill out your log books.
  • Be helpful.
  • Don’t do anything unsafely – if you’re not sure, ask!
  • Buy quality tools as needed for each term of apprenticeship.”
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