By AHMED DIRIE
Led by teacher Nicole Ross, Neil McNeil Catholic High School has launched its Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) programs to provide students with the knowledge, tools, certifications and connections needed to succeed in a career in the skilled trades.
Alongside other members of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), Neil McNeil launched its program with encouragement from the provincial government in order to address the potential shortfall of skilled labourers combined with the predicted uptick in skilled trade jobs in 2025, according to Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development.
Ross’ unique background, love for trades and work ethic has allowed her to succeed in a largely male-dominated industry both in teaching and in the field. A graduate of Queen’s University with a degree in chemistry, Ross found her calling during a trip to New Zealand where she landed a job on a construction site.
“It was never offered to me, it wasn’t even on my radar,” said Ross. “So it’s not like something where I’m like, ‘Hey, I always wanted to try it’. I was just completely like, ‘OK, I guess this is all my path’. When I worked there, I really enjoyed it.”
Following two years on the construction site in New Zealand, Ross returned home to pursue a career in trades.
Starting with non-union work, Ross eventually found a union to finish her apprenticeship as one of the few women in the field and was awarded for top grades at graduation from the College of Carpenters and Allied Trades.
Ross said she may have pivoted to trades sooner had she been offered a program like SHSM when she was in high school.
“There was no woodshop or anything,” she said. “I wasn’t really exposed to it. I really like visual art. And so I should have made the link that I would like something kind of hands-on, artistic and dexterous.”
While the industry has evolved over the years, Ross admitted it was tough to break into trades as a woman despite her qualifications.
“I’ve been told outright that women don’t belong here,” she said. “I had a hard time getting hired when I first started again in New Zealand during my first term.”
The initial roadblocks weren’t enough to deter Ross and she persevered until her skills shone through.
“One thing I hear a lot of women say is that they have to work twice as hard as men,” said Ross.
“I never felt like that. I felt like I was respected for being a hard worker across the board, and I never felt like I was working harder to prove anything… However, I know that right off the bat, people just assume I didn’t know anything until they got to know me.”
She said that is something she also faces when first teaching trade skills in the classroom.
“Anytime I started at a new school, the first few weeks in my first semester, there was always pushback, or an assumption that a 16 year old would know more,” said Ross with a laugh.
With more than 10 years of experience, having started her own business as well as forging connections across various sectors in trades, Ross arrived at Neil McNeil with a tailor-made skillset to prepare students for a similar career path to her own.
Ross’ program and curriculum are as unique and varied as she is.
With a three-pronged approach that includes practical, hands-on learning, partnering with local businesses, such as Don Fry Scaffold Services Inc., and culminating with students attaining key certifications through the SHSM program and real-world experiences by working with the Carpenters Union, Local 27, her program paves the way for the students to find employment after graduation.
Ross’ students, including Paolo Di Carlo, Saad Mdwar and Makhi Minott have praised her approach to teaching and are able to flourish despite different levels of experience working with their hands and using power tools.
“It’s just very hands-on and we do a lot of different kinds of projects,” said Di Carlo. “Most classes you focus on one thing, and that’s really all you do every year but in this class you’re exposed to a lot of different stuff.”
“I started this year, so it was like a very scary thing,” said Mdwar. “I did not want to use most of the equipment but I ended up liking it.”
Despite his initial trepidation, Mdwar can now envision a career in trades, perhaps as an electrician.
With the ongoing housing crisis as well as the plethora of construction projects across the city, Ross understands the need to bolster the ranks of tradespeople with eager and well-prepared skilled workers.
“The need for workers clearly exists,” said Ross.
Even in her first year, Ross is seeing the impact and traction her program is having.
“Last year, there was one in Grade 12, who graduated with construction. And this year, we have 25 in the program and all of them have told me they want to go into trades.”