Head of the class: Richardson wins OCTE award

Former Ontario high school tech teacher and current chair of the Ontario Council for Technology Education​ (OCTE) Wade Richardson knows a thing or two about motivating students in tech class.

The Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) adviser with the Halton District School Board recently received the Lifetime Membership Award from the OCTE for his advocacy on behalf of the council. OCTE noted in particular Richardson’s successes as part of the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development (MOL) Youth Advisory initiative, which led to the introduction of the compulsory Technological Education credit for all Ontario students.

Richardson is in his second year as chair of the OCTE and recently enumerated a number of reforms he’d like to see in tech education in the province, including ensuring elementary school science and tech teachers have the tools they need to show young students how to “actually build things and make things with real wood and real tools, rather than make pre-crafted things.”

But as much as he has been involved in administration of the OYAP program and provincial policy-making over the past five years, Richardson said he’s still driven by the desire to help young people discover their passion in life — and if it’s a skilled trade, to give them every opportunity to be exposed to the trade that’s right for them.

He knows the average age of an apprentice in Ontario is 28 years and that means for maybe 10 years some of those workers were drifting.

But under the right circumstances, with the right guidance, with exposure at the right time, with hands-on involvement with a trade they may have never considered before, the connection to a satisfying future can be made at a younger age.

“When I talk about the skilled trades, I say these are the opportunities you get to build things, make things and it’s quite satisfying. But is it right for you?” said Richardson.

“Probably 80 per cent of the Grade 11 students have no idea what they want to do. So we try and get them out there, get those experiences and decide whether it is something they want to do and in the end it’s a win. Because they don’t know what they don’t know, and unless they can experience it, they can’t make a really educated decision.”

Richardson says Ontario’s Ministry of Education and MOL are making great strides in upgrading technical education to improve pathways to jobs in the skills trades, but he’s got his own set of recommendations from his decades spent on the front lines.

Among them:

  • Ensure students are exposed to as many trades as possible. Get them out to jobsites with a full roster of trades at work. They may not like the placement they have but another trade might catch their eye.

“I know one student did switch to be a plumber and actually got a job with the person on the jobsite. They were working with an electrician at the time. It’s all about exposure,” said Richardson.

  • Upgrade shop classrooms. Richardson said some of the tech classrooms in new schools are too small to tackle projects that will ignite a student’s imagination. Some only feature woodworking.

“Really, they should maybe have more higher square footage so the students can actually build construction-based items there.”

  • Focus on projects. “You capture more students if you make the curriculum activity-based. If the students are making, creating or building things, quite often they’re more engaged and they learn different skills.”
  • Hands-on at career fairs. Richardson is enthusiastic about Ontario’s new lineup of Level Up! secondary school career fairs and said they work best when there are hands-on activities, such as the opportunity to drive a mini-excavator he saw at one fair.
  • Spend on new equipment. Upgrading equipment in high school tech classes is a good investment. Students are able to digitally design projects and then take the project from design to reality if they are able to work on a $30,000 CNC milling machine, for example.
  • Keep supporting co-op programs. Richardson said it’s rare a student can’t be placed in a co-op program but sometimes there are not enough options and the placement is a bad fit.

“More variety is always better with every student…the more employers, the more choice we have, the better.”

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