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August 2014

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Toronto Program Connects At-Risk Youth with
Construction Careers

Opportunity. It's one of the defining values of the building trades, helping working people find a way into a good career and the middle class.

It's that spirit that motivates the Central Ontario Building Trades' Hammer Heads program.

The community-based initiative is a 12-14 week pre-apprenticeship, boot camp style program that exposes at-risk youth between the ages of 18-26 to the different skilled trades.

Founded in 2010, the program is targeted at residents of some of the Greater Toronto Area's most distressed neighborhoods. Applicants are referred to Hammer Heads by social services and city employment agencies.

"Before the program, most of our participants were living in community housing and the shelter system and were recipients of social assistance," said Central Ontario Building Trades Business Manager and Director of the Hammer Heads program James St. John. "Since graduating, [they] have entered into registered apprenticeships within the skilled construction trades and become contributing members of their communities."

Students learn through hands-on activities, classroom learning and field trips to job sites to acquaint them with what goes on at a construction site.

Safety is a top priority. The first two weeks of the program are exclusively focused on health and safety training, including first aid, CPR, the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (provincial safety regulations) and fall arrest among others, exceeding industry requirements.

"[The program] is committed to elevating the level of safety education so that our graduates will be leaders in the field," St. John said.

Instructors also work with participants on time management and communication, including punctuality, eye-contact and other skills necessary to succeed in a professional environment.

"They learn how to dress properly on the job site," he said. "We want them to have a professional image so contractors feel comfortable hiring them."

Unlike many job training programs, Hammer Heads boasts an enviable placement rate. More than 150 students have entered union apprenticeships since 2010, saving Ontario more than $400,000 in social assistance payments.

One of those successful graduates is Toronto Local 353 member Chris Williamson.

"Hammer Heads helped me get prepared because throughout the program they gave me good hands-on experience," he said. "It gave me the training I needed to be successful on the job."

First District Vice President William Daniels says that efforts like Hammer Heads showcase the building trades' commitment to expanding opportunities for all working people.

"A lot of people don't know just how much we give back to the wider community," he said.

St. John says that the IBEW is one of the strongest supporters of Hammer Heads, with 17 students being placed into Local 353 electrical apprenticeships.

Many of the enrollees are people of color, and union leaders say this will help make sure the trades better reflect the face of an increasingly diverse 21st century Canadian workforce.

The program is also helping to change the image of unions in the public's mind, said St. John.

"The Central Ontario Building Trades and our 25 affiliates invest $1.4 million to training 45 youth from under-resourced and Aboriginal communities annually. There aren't many private organizations putting out this kind of money to train at-risk youth," he said. "Even anti-union council members who always butted heads with us are now writing letters to contractors encouraging them to hire Hammer Heads graduates."

Hammer Heads are also taught the importance of volunteerism. Students are required to perform community service, like cleaning up a local park. "We're trying to create a legacy of giving back to the community," said St. John.

The good wages and benefits that come with a union job is one of the strongest selling points for the program, he added.

"When we begin a new intake, we bring back past graduates who form the Youth Advisory Committee and they bring their pay cheques with them," he told the Daily Commercial News and Construction Record. "Their jaws just hit the table when they see grads from the same neighborhood they live in doing so well."

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