First Steps to Getting Started with a Career in Skilled Trades

by Curtis Rurka on 23 Aug, 2021

If you're interested in a career where you're well-paid, don't need to spend a lot of time in post-secondary, get the opportunity to work while you learn, and get to work in a hands-on way instead of behind a desk, you might be interested in a career in the skilled trades. 

The skilled trades are in very high demand currently; the US Bureau of Labor estimates that carpenters, hairdressers, electricians, auto mechanics and other trades will have many tens of thousands of openings occurring every year in the country. In Canada, it's predicted that there will be a shortfall of 100,000 jobs in the construction industry. That means that there will be a very high chance of getting a well-paid and long-term career in the skilled trades for many years to come. 


But how do you get there? If you are in high school, training and education options can feel a bit overwhelming to navigate. We hope that this article will clarify some of the key steps needed to secure a career in the skilled trades.



1. Pick a trade to study


You can probably name a few skilled trades off the top of your head, but the truth is that the skilled trades cover a huge variety of different professions. There are approximately 300 skilled trades designated in Canada, for example, so there's no shortage of possible options.


Skilled trades can be broken down into a few major categories, so a great place to start would be to get a sense of which skilled trade interests you so you can learn more about it and what you'll need to do to practice it.


Construction trades cover everything needed to build and do maintenance on a building. You'll enjoy the construction trades if you like working with your hands, following plans and doing math. Carpenters and cabinetmakers work with wood to make walls, doors and furniture. Pipefitters and plumbers work on pipes and water mains so you can have clean water. Electricians put together wiring and outlets so your electronics work. And those are just a few!


Transportation trades workers handle moving things from one place to another, as well as make sure vehicles run smoothly. If you love to travel and solve problems, the transportation trades might be for you! Heavy equipment operators and truck drivers move lots of different things from place to place. Automobile mechanics, motorcycle mechanics and recreational vehicle technicians help make sure that your cars and vehicles drive well and help fix any damage to them. 


Manufacturing trades make things out of metal or work in factories. If you like working in a fast-paced job that never gets boring, perhaps you should look into the manufacturing trades. Machinists make parts for various engines and machines, either by hand or using a computer. Industrial mechanics and electricians help fix issues in factories and make sure manufacturing equipment works properly. Welders fuse metal parts together in a variety of different ways.


Service trades help do services for people to help make their lives easier. They are the most creative of the trades and are often considered arts, so if you're a creative person you might like the service trades. Chefs, cooks and bakers make and prepare food in a bunch of different places. Hairdressers and barbers cut hair and style it in a beautiful way. Manicurists and aestheticians help keep your skin smooth and your nails cut and protected from damage (or brightly coloured). 


In addition, agricultural workers (like horticulturists and tractor drivers), forestry workers, information technology workers (like computer support specialists or graphic designers) or medical technicians (like phlebotomists and health aides) might be included in the skilled trades. 


The best way to get started is to start by checking out the main skilled trades organization for your area. Skills Compétences Canada's Skills Profiles or SkillsUSA's Career Clusters have lots of information about different careers in the skilled trades. If one of the careers above seemed interesting, searching it up on those websites might be a great resource to learn more about the trade.


Another important consideration for Canadian skilled trades is that the trade that interests you might have the possibility of getting Red Seal certification. That means that you can practice the trade anywhere in the country without needing to take a province or territory's specific trades exams. Not all trades have Red Seal certification so make sure to check.



2. Finish high school


The vast majority of vocational trades programs require a high school diploma. That doesn't mean that you have to wait all the way until college to learn a trade! Most schools offer shop/trades classes that you can take to get a strong foundation in a trade before even going to college. Some colleges and high schools also have dual credit or dual enrollment programs that you can take too so that you can start learning a trade while you're still in high school, as well as reduce the costs of going to college.


For Americans, most trades programs don't require you to take the ACT or SAT. However, you might get a better job or apprenticeship placement after vocational training if you do. Now is a great time to learn about the local trades association or trade union for your area. A simple search for your trade of interest along with "union" and your state should get you to the right one. Check with this local trade union or state trades association to see if there are other things you'll need to do in high school to get into your trade of choice.



3. Find a course or program to learn the trade


Unlike most post-secondary degrees which tend to be 4 years or more to complete, many vocational programs take two years or less to finish. They also don't tend to be the big name universities in your region, which means they are often much cheaper and much closer to home. Start a search for local places that teach your trade of choice. Pay attention to some of these considerations while you do so:

  • How much does it cost to go here? How does that compare to other places?
  • How well do graduates from this institution do in the job market? What's their rate of placement or what percentage find jobs after graduating?
  • Similarly, how much support does the college give you when it comes time to start your apprenticeship? Do you need to search for an employer or will they help you with that? (more on that later)
  • Can you go to this school while still living in your hometown? Will you need to move and live on your own for a while?
  • Does the college offer clubs, associations or sports that you like? 


If you're not sure where to start to explore vocational institutions near you that offer skilled trades programs, ChatterHigh helps you to narrow down your interests and discover colleges that might be an option for you. You'll be able to see information about the skilled trades and what the different trades programs look like, as well as their cost and how the institutions can help you succeed in your career.



4. Start the path to apprenticeship


Most trades require that you complete an apprenticeship in order to be certified to practice on your own. The process of starting an apprenticeship is going to differ depending on where you live; check with your local trade union or a provincial/territorial/state authority to see which trades require apprenticeships where you live and what's required to enroll in one. Look for a section on "youth in the trade" or a "getting started" area. Pay particular attention to any applications you'll need to fill out. 


During an apprenticeship, you'll be working under a master tradesperson for a period of time so you can work on your trade in person. This will last anywhere from one to six years depending on the trade, and you'll get the opportunity to make money while you're doing it too! You'll be employed by the company you're doing an apprenticeship with, which means you'll get hands-on experience about being in the trade instead of just learning in a classroom.


At the end of the apprenticeship period, you'll get the opportunity to write an exam to become a journeyman tradesperson. This'll allow you to work on your own and means you've officially gotten a career in the skilled trades!


Lastly, if you want to know more about the skilled trades in Canada, Skills Compétences Canada is the national body that offers trades information, as well as a National Skills Competition for youth in the skilled trades. The next competition will be in May 2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the US, SkillsUSA offers their national competition every year as well, which tends to fall in May-June. 


ChatterHigh also has information from both of these organizations and offers the Let's Talk Careers competition twice a year in partnership with Skills Compétences Canada. Taking part in the Let's Talk Careers competition is free and you don't need to be a master welder to do well; you just need a computer and a willingness to learn about post-secondary education and careers. You can sign up for an account here.

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