Co-operative education gives students a chance to learn by doing and Muskoka schools like Huntsville High School offer a wide range of opportunities to help high schoolers explore their career options before receiving their diplomas.
One option for students is to do a co-op placement through the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), which allows students to get firsthand experience while accruing hours toward their apprenticeship. The placements include everything from early childhood education and vet technicians to auto mechanics and millwrights. They fall within four categories: service, construction, industrial and motive power. Moore said that co-ops offer many benefits, and one of them is having the opportunity to test drive a career without worrying about the money or time involved.
“Instead of investing time and money in that college or university program that may or may not work for a student, with apprenticeship, students are paid to learn,” said Christine Moore, OYAP recruiter and Pathways consultant for Trillium Lakelands District School Board. “They end up coming out of an apprenticeship knowing that they love what they’re doing and not having any of that student debt.”
Co-op students who start their apprenticeships in high school aren’t typically paid hourly wages before they graduate, but they do receive tuition-free credits and job experience. They can also start earning money through their placement as soon as they graduate if they continue as an apprentice, and even if they don’t, the co-ops can give students valuable insight into their career search.
Moore recalls a student who was determined to be a vet tech. The student started her co-op and within two weeks, she realized that it was too upsetting for her to witness animals in surgery and being put down. Instead of waiting until graduation and paying tuition to find out that she didn’t want to pursue that career, she was able to find out through co-op and choose something different while still in high school.
“There’s lots of students who take a co-op course and they do something and they love it, and so then they feel so much more confident in the path that they’re taking,” Moore said. “Then [there are] others who figure out what they don’t want to do, which is equally as powerful.”
Going beyond the basic co-op
Some fields are hours-based while others require apprenticeship-specific schooling, which students can apply to take as part of the accelerated OYAP program. The students chosen for the program go to a delivery agent like Georgian College to do their first level of apprenticeship schooling.
The program is funded by OYAP, so the provincial government covers the cost of the course, transportation, textbooks and other supplies. It’s a rare opportunity to start post-secondary education in high school, so Moore encourages interested students to apply.
“Most trades have three levels of schooling,” Moore said. “Some have two, some have one, depends on the trade, but typically the schooling is approximately eight weeks in length, and so what we offer is this really cool opportunity for students to start their apprenticeship schooling while they’re still in high school.”
If students have an employer who is willing to take them on after graduation, another option is to sign a registered training agreement. Once they graduate from high school, they can continue their apprenticeship without creating a new legal document. It simply rolls over and they become a regular apprentice.
On top of the career-specific skills students gain, they also learn general employability skills. Moore said she thinks that sometimes people don’t realize how amazing students can be as employees, especially because they come without preconceived notions or bad habits to break.
“They’re enthusiastic, they’re energetic and they’re fabulous workers,” Moore said. “When you invest in a student, they often want to invest in the employer. There’s that loyalty, which is a recipe for a great future workforce.”
The placements are typically unpaid and the Ministry of Education covers the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) benefits, so there’s no cost to the employer to have the additional help on hand. The program is flexible too, she said, so just like a student can change their placement if it’s not the right fit for them, so can employers.
Moore urges business owners to reach out to their local schools and learn more about co-op placements. They don’t necessarily have a student for every business every semester, but they do find a lot of great matches. She seems to see former co-op students everywhere she goes, and she hopes that trend will continue.
“These co-op placements allow students to make connections with people in the community,” Moore said. “That’s really important because we’re hoping that they’re going to maybe find an employer that they love working with and they make the decision that they want to settle in Muskoka, which is really great for our economy.”
Careers in the skilled trades are often lucrative, have great work-life balance and help employees stay physically fit, Moore said. She and other recruiters like her are encouraging students to pursue a career in the skilled trades to help fill gaps in the workforce and to give them stable and rewarding jobs.
Co-op careers at Huntsville High School
Jennifer Cooper is a history and civics teacher at Huntsville High School and she’s been working with co-op students on and off since about 2015. Some students come in with placements already arranged through friends or family, while others come in with no idea of what job they want to do.
The co-op staff encourages students to go through a job search as part of the learning process, but they also help guide students to find the right fit. They often go back to employers where they’ve had successful co-op placements, partly because past students make great teachers.
“That’s always nice to see when the program keeps growing, and then the kids that went through it are now teaching the newer kids,” Cooper said. “That really helps build it because then they understand what we’re trying to do, they know what it did for them and they’re really good teachers for the next group of co-op students.”
Huntsville High School’s co-op program is unique because they have more Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) programs than any other school in the district, according to Cooper. The school offers six of the 19 possible sectors: manufacturing, construction, transportation, art and culture, hospitality and tourism, and health and wellness.
Along with doing a co-op placement, the SHSM program allows students to gain credits toward their diploma while focusing their studies on a specific field. They take eight to 10 courses in their area, earn industry certifications like first aid and receive a special diploma to reflect their studies.
“It’s open to all pathways,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t matter if you are doing straight to apprenticeship or workplace, or if you’re planning to go to college or apply to go to university, the Specialist High Skills Major can give you opportunities.”
The SHSM program gives students with a strong sense of what they want to do the chance to kickstart their careers while other co-ops allow students to get job experience and career guidance as they figure it out. Cooper also wants students to remember that co-ops are available for roles like chefs, youth workers and arborists in addition to traditional trades jobs like carpenters, electricians and plumbers.
She often hears people express the belief that a person needs to go to university to get a decent job, and that’s just not the case, she said. Doing a co-op can go hand-in-hand with college or university, but whether or not typical post-secondary education is part of the process, the skilled trades offer a solid career path.
“That’s the biggest battle I think we face is trying to get rid of that stigma that that’s where you go as a last resort,” Cooper said. “It’s absolutely a first choice for many.”