The skidder rumbles to a start around 9:30 a.m., the purr of its engine breaking the quiet of the B.C. bush. Nearby, a crew hooks choker cables to cut trees, preparing to pull them out of the dense forest and to a clearing, where other crews will first limb and then buck them with chainsaws. The day's activities are similar to those of any other forestry operation in B.C., with one exception: The workers are 16 and 17 years old.
On this chilly day in late October, a dozen students from Charles Bloom Secondary School's forestry program are at the woodlot in Trinity Valley, about a 20-minute bus ride from the school in Lumby. Bloom is one of two high schools in B.C. with its own woodlot – the other is Nechako Valley Secondary School in Vanderhoof – and the only one with active logging equipment.
While the school has operated the woodlot for about a dozen years, the forestry program has taken on new significance as B.C. begins a dramatic overhaul of its curriculum for kindergarten through high school in pursuit of a new skills-training agenda.
The government expects more than a million job openings by the end of the decade, about 40 per cent of which will be in trades or technical occupations.
Nearly half of Canadian manufacturers have labour shortages today, and by 2016, 1.3 million skilled-labour jobs in Canada will be vacant for lack of anyone qualified to do them, according to advocacy group Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.
As B.C. revamps its curriculum to emphasize project-based learning and introduce the idea of skilled-labour jobs as early as Grade 5, schools may want to look at the small forestry program in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley, which is steadily churning out students who are ready to hit the ground running at graduation.
After a few weeks of in-class safety training, which includes first aid and WorkSafeBC compliance, Grade 11 and 12 students in Bloom's full-semester program are at the woodlot three days a week getting hands-on experience in an industrial setting. Students cannot fall the trees, as only trained and certified workers can do so in B.C., but they do everything else, from dragging the trees out of the bush to building furniture and everything in between. Instructor Martin Tooms, who took over the program this year, is introducing new skills such as tree identification, knot-tying and possibly welding.
Some of the final products – which include picnic tables, bed frames and benches – go home with the students. Others are donated to the parent advisory council or the community. The program also sells firewood to local residents and logs to industrial markets such as Tolko Industries Ltd. and North Enderby Timber Ltd., receiving no special treatment, former Bloom principal Ken Gatzke said. The annual revenue of about $30,000 in goes back into the program to cover costs, including equipment and maintenance.
Mr. Gatzke calls the program "one of the best examples of '21st century learning,'" which the province's Ministry of Education defines as using "educational technologies to apply knowledge to new situations, analyze information, collaborate, solve problems and make decisions." Graduates of the program, Mr. Gatzke said, emerge with a myriad of skills and are ready to work. They pursue jobs in the trades, including forestry, welding and electrical services.
"One of the myths that we always want to debunk is that we're not necessarily trying to create loggers," said Mr. Gatzke, who oversaw the program as principal for eight years. "We're trying to create kids who have hands-on, go-to-work skills."
Steve Simon, career programs co-ordinator for the Vernon school district, said the program helps bridge the disconnect between high school and the working world by "making the walls of the school a little more porous."
It also helps with critical thinking and life skills. "It shows us you can't just quit halfway through the day," said Ashley Tinney, 17, one of two peer tutors in the program this year. "It teaches teamwork. You may work with people you don't like, but for the sake of safety – say, around the saw – you still have to get along with them. You've got to be able to communicate."
For Mitch Benzmer, a Grade 12 Bloom student who admitted he "wasn't the greatest kid," the program instilled a work ethic he says he could not get in a traditional classroom. With one suspension, a number of bad habits and barely passing his classes, Mr. Benzmer signed up for forestry in hopes of setting his life straight. It appears to have worked. The 17-year-old's grades improved, he quit smoking, got a job working a firewood processor and saved up $5,000 over the summer – all of which he credits to the program.
"I had never won an award in high school, and last year I won most improved throughout the whole school," he said during a lunch break at the woodlot. "They said that was one of the biggest awards at the school, so it's something to be pretty proud of.
"Everything has gone uphill for me since forestry, for sure. Lots of these kids want to learn and build their skills," he said. "Most kids don't want to just sit around in school. They want to be working. That's what makes the course so good."
B.C.'s new education plan will include the current foundation – subjects such as reading, writing and math – but "allow for more exploration into other areas of interest," said Peter Fassbender, the province's Minister of Education.
"One of the fears that I think sometimes people have is that we're going to take away important parts of our curriculum," he said. "We're not. We're making sure the foundation is solid, but then we're allowing students and teachers to guide them in exploring more things of interest to them, where they can individualize their journey as opposed to having to fit into a predetermined box."
Schools could look at what Bloom is doing and adapt the model to fit with their particular community dynamics, said Mr. Fassbender, who, coincidentally, worked as a chokerman in Port McNeil at age 17.
Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, has said some people, including parents, feel there is a stigma attached to the trades, that they are less meaningful than earning a university degree and becoming, for example, a doctor or a lawyer. Mr. Fassbender agrees, noting a need to "change the mindset of society."
"If your child chooses to go into a career that does not require a university degree, there is nothing wrong with that," he said. "Let's think about allowing them to explore and celebrating the great opportunities that are open to them."