A career as a drywaller could be in the stars next year for two young people from a priority neighbourhood in north Etobicoke after being chosen for a two-day introductory course earlier this month.
Toronto police 23 Division Supt. Ron Taverner approached Hugh Laird, executive director of the Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario, with the idea to refer young people to the course to learn what it takes to become a drywaller.
The course is the second phase of a program called Cool Tool Schools, which originated in August with Toronto police officers from Taverner’s division teaching children ages five to 11 from the same neighbourhood basic home repairs such as patching drywall holes, replacing door knobs and re-installing broken stairway handles.
The drywaller course enrolled teens, as well as people in their mid-20s to early 30s considering a second career for two days.
“It’s just a really good feeling when you do it,” Laird said, noting his first project with at-risk youth enrolled so-called squeegee kids who lived under the Gardiner Expressway in a course with an opportunity to apprentice as drywallers.
“As a good corporate citizen, I think we have an obligation to do that. We’re looking for good, qualified people. If you can save a couple kids here and there, it’s worth it.”
David Semen, industry apprenticeship liaison with the Interior Finishing Systems Training Centre in Woodbridge, Ont., taught the two-day course.
The training centre trains apprentices in drywall acoustics, drywall finishing, exterior insulating finishing systems mechanic and hazardous materials.
It is the largest training facility of its kind in North America, Semen said.
“I didn’t expect all 14 students to return on the second day,” said Semen, a second-generation metal carpenter, whose career in the trade has spanned 23 years and includes construction on the then-SkyDome.
“I was really impressed on the second day when the students came in, got their boots, took their tools out, teamed off and went to work. I didn’t have to motivate them. All of them were energetic, focused, really involved with the project.”
The course culminated in the construction of a four-by-four-foot doghouse. The project required students to build a freestanding metal structure, install drywall, tape, learn how to read specs on a blueprint and use a measuring tape.
At course’s end, nine students raised their hands when Semen asked if they’d consider a career in the drywall or taping trades.
Interest in the building and construction trade, Grade 10 math and Grade 10 English and a good attitude is all that’s required to apply for an apprenticeship, Semen said.
Semen invited COSTI Immigrant Services and JVS Toronto to partner on the program. COSTI now offers a test students can write in one day to gain their Grade 10 math and Grade 10 English equivalency.
Drywall students attend trade school for eight weeks, then do paid work in the industry for 18 months before returning to school for another eight weeks to complete an advanced course.
Drywall apprentices must work 5,400 hours to become certified, far fewer than the 7,200 hours required of wood carpenters or 10,000 hours to become an electrician, Semen said.
The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities pays half the cost of training, while contractors for whom the apprentice will work, who are members of Interior Systems Contractors Association of Ontario, pay the other 50 per cent of the cost, Laird said.
Students working in the industry as drywallers earn $14.56 an hour, plus 10 per cent vacation pay, and pay $5.35 an hour into a pension. In all, contractors pay drywallers more than $27 per hour, Semen said.
“You can make very good money,” Semen said. “It takes three years on average to finish this apprenticeship program as long as the economy is good and their attitude is good. Earning $80,000 a year as a drywaller is easily achievable.”
The average journeyman, a professionally certified drywaller, earns $75,000 a year, Laird said.
“Some young kids are making more than $100,000 a year,” he said. “If they want to put the time in, the work is there.”
Laird expressed enthusiasm that the new Ontario Ministry of Trades will be promoting the trades as a career to Canadian youth as part of its mandate.
“It’s mind boggling to me that the national youth unemployment rate was 19 per cent last time I looked,” Laird said. “Meanwhile, some trades are bringing in foreign workers rather than looking at this large pool — 19 per cent unemployment among youth in one of the greatest countries in the world.”
Laird and Semen expect to enrol more young people in the program in the future.
“I fell back on tools and never looked back,” Semen said of his career. “I love the industry, what I do, that I get to be part of this at-risk youth program. You have students who say, ‘I never thought I could do this. I didn’t know I had the talent to do this. I was told I’m stupid in math. You’ve changed my life.’
“I feel quite blessed to be part of this.”