Options Skilled Trades Fair returns to Pembroke (pembrokeobserver.com)

The sound of mitre saws chopping through wood and air compressors being used in a tire changing competition permeated the Pembroke Memorial Centre as the Options Skilled Trades Fair returned after a four year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was music to the ears of everyone who gathered for what has become one of the biggest events on the high school calendar.

Not even a 50-minute power outage at the arena could dampen the spirits of the students who participated in the event which is a showcase of apprenticeship training and career opportunities in the skilled trades. Almost 150 senior high school students from across Renfrew and Pontiac Counties were at the centre of the action, taking part in competitions that included welding, small engine repair, culinary arts, hairstyling and more.

It was a long road back for organizers who had put the brakes on Options when the pandemic prevented large public gatherings, but over the past few months a small group of educators started to put together the foundation of what has made Options such a successful event. They focused on the skills competitions and engaging with employers and organizations who could provide interactive displays that gave students an opportunity to test drive a skilled trades career.

It worked. The hundreds of Grade 8 to 10 students who attended were lined up to try out heavy equipment simulators that were operated by Algonquin College’s Forestry Technician program and were eager to play a game of skilled trades jeopardy hosted by the Labour Market Group of Lanark and Renfrew counties. Others were impressed by a robotics display and many watched as some high school students completed their certification in forklift driving in the outdoor space that was utilized by the show.

Major employers from the region were present, many of them planting seeds in young minds about the current labour shortages and how choosing a trade can lead to rewarding careers that offer good pay and career advancement opportunities. The Canadian Armed Forces was well represented with military equipment on display in the parking lot and recruitment teams on the rink floor sharing information about how the army, navy and air force all rely heavily on troops that have trades skills.

Nearby, the Chalk River labs of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories were promoting plumbing, pipefitting and stationary engineering among several other trades. In all, more than 30 exhibitors had made Options a priority, ensuring they were there to encourage the students to think about the possibilities of working with their hands.

In his remarks at the opening ceremonies, Pembroke Mayor Ron Gervais spoke of the labour shortages in the skilled trades sector.

“As a municipality, we employ many skilled trades workers to keep our city operating smoothly. We are aware that there are critical shortages in many sectors of the labour market, including the skilled trades. This is why events like Options are so important,” said Gervais.

Options began almost two decades ago in Petawawa. The program was developed as a grassroots effort to encourage more young people to consider the skills trades and apprenticeship training as an alternative pathway after completing secondary school. Over the years, hundreds of students who have participated in Options have gone on to become carpenters, cabinet makers, automotive technicians, chefs, hairstylists, estheticians and welders.

Options was sponsored by the Partnering to Articulate for Student Success initiative, Junior Achievement, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, the Lanark-Renfrew Labour Market Group and the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship program. The event was organized by Algonquin College’s Pembroke Campus and the four district school boards that serve Renfrew County.

Jamie Bramburger – Manager The Labour Market Group of Renfrew and Lanark County

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