The Physical And Mental Demands Of The Skilled Trades

The Physical And Mental Demands Of The Skilled Trades

From A Trades Guy…

The skilled trades are a fantastic career. I have worked in the skilled trades for 30 years and the opportunities and pathways provided to me have been fantastic. The skilled trades are unlike any other professional career. Every day you are challenged both mentally and physically to deliver exceptional results. Here are some of the physical and mental challenges a tradesperson might deal with on a regular basis.

Physical Challenges

The trades are tough on your body. Period. For the majority of the trades, a workday will consist of lifting items like tools, materials, parts, and other objects that need to be moved, used or fitted. Bending, reaching and manoeuvring your body are also a huge part of the job. Unlike shop class, in the field there are always items in the way of what you are working on. Also, what you are fixing, repairing or maintaining is hardly ever at a comfortable working level. Finally, sitting is rarely an option. Up and down the stairs multiple times per day, climbing ladders and lying on your stomach or back to get the job done are the norm.

The physical environment that skilled tradespeople work in can also be taxing on the body. Extreme heat and cold doesn’t mean things won’t break – actually it is the opposite. Items you need break down at the time when they are needed most. A/C units break on the hottest days and furnaces break on the coldest.

Weather is not the only environmental challenge. In the skilled trades dust, dirt, waste, fumes and other hazards are common. Tradespeople often wear dust masks, respirators and full face protection. I myself have had to wear SCBA (self contained breathing apparatus) multiple times to complete a task.

Are the trades tougher on your body than office work? Hard to say. We are starting to recognize the dangers of sedentary jobs, especially those with high stress levels, on our physical health. In addition, jobs with lots of distractions seem to be increasing our anxiety levels and affecting our mental health.

Mental Challenges

Have you heard the term, “always on”? As a tradesperson your mind never stops. It can’t. There are too many things that can hurt you. Whether it is pressure from a pipe, electrical current, heavy objects or power tools, becoming complacent is not an option. On a construction site there are multiple people doing a variety of tasks. Having a sharp mind to keep you focused on your work while being aware of what is happening around you can be taxing.

Safety is one mental challenge, another is problem solving, troubleshooting and diagnosing. It is your job to find the problem as quickly as possible, come up with a solution, and repair the issue. This can happen multiple times per day. As a skilled trades professional, you are looked at to either have the answers or find out as quickly as possible.

One challenge that affects both our minds and our bodies is fatigue. In the skilled trades, the hours can be long and you can be required to work multiple days in a row. When you are tired, it can be hard on your body and it can be hard on your mind. It can be difficult to stay motivated and focused. It is easier to make mistakes or incorrect decisions when you are fatigued. Tiredness can be harmful, and it is up to you to be aware how it is affecting you.

How to Cope

Even with both the mental and physical challenges of the skilled trades, I find it to be an extremely rewarding career. Here are some of the things I have done over the years to help me.

Physical Exercise

Being physically active is a major part of helping cope with both the mental and physical challenges of the skilled trades. Strength training helps make the daily physical challenges easier, and it also releases the endorphins that help the mind. My physical outlet of choice is kickboxing. This allows me to work really hard physically and helps me mentally by leaving it all in the ring.


We are all different, and you need to know yourself. I used to be in awe of (still am) of people who can function well with little or no sleep. This is not me. I tried it. Nope! For me to function at my best, I know I need 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Rest is so important mentally and physically. I know when I am tired my mood is terrible, I do not eat properly and my judgement is flawed. So I take care of myself because I know that’s what I need. Downtime is so important for my recovery.

Some Things You Might Not Expect

Physical exercise and rest may seem like obvious suggestions for dealing with some of the demands of trades work. I’d like to touch on two more things that you might not expect.

Gratitude Journal

I was introduced to a gratitude journal a few years ago by my wife. It has helped with my mindset immensely. For some reason, we as humans like to focus on the negative. By journaling and reflecting on the positive impacts of each day, I have been happier and I sleep better than I have since I was a kid.


Mindfulness for me is about being in the present. Feeling what you need to feel at that moment. If you are angry or sad, allow yourself to be present in the emotion. Feel it. Then move on. This, along with discovering why or what has triggered you to feel this emotion is a powerful way to overcome mental challenges. If you put in this work to find out what is bothering you, the emotion will no longer have power over you.


The skilled trades are a fantastic career choice. However, you need to take care of both your mental and physical well being to be a successful tradesperson. Exercise, eat well, remain active and rest when needed are great for your physical and mental health. Additionally, reflecting on the positives of your workday and using mindfulness to get to the root cause of your triggers will definitely help overcome some of the mental challenges of a skilled trades life.

Be well,

Contact the Team

Hamilton Campus

Campus Hours

Company Costs in Hiring Apprentices and Why it Matters

Company Costs in Hiring Apprentices and Why it Matters

An apprenticeship is a form of education. Knowledge and skill are transmitted to students who earn a credential, and in many trades the credential is required in order to work in that trade. What is different about an apprenticeship vs college or university is where the learning takes place. And this means that the costs of training are distributed differently as well. This has implications for how easy or difficult it is to get an apprenticeship, and for the kind of training a student should pursue in order to become an apprentice. And because it can be so costly to take on an apprentice, this is another reason why students should develop their professional skills first, not their technical skills.

A Degree or Diploma Versus an Apprenticeship

In a traditional post-secondary degree, a college employs staff and teachers and has a physical infrastructure with classrooms and labs, libraries and perhaps residences. Students pay tuition and fees to cover the costs of these services and for the opportunity to learn what is required to earn the credential.

When students graduate, they enter a job market and companies sort through the various candidates and choose the ones they want to hire. Companies do not pay anything towards the skills and knowledge that their new employees have acquired. In other words, students (and governments) pay the full freight for traditional degrees and diplomas while the companies that hire these graduates pay nothing.

In standard economic theory, there is some justification for this distribution of costs. Most of the skills and knowledge that students learn in a college program are general and transferable. This means they can be used at any organization, so in theory companies should pay as little as possible for skills that an employee can readily take with them to a competitor.

In an apprenticeship, the costs of education are distributed differently. This is something that isn’t often talked about or understood, but it has a big impact on the availability of apprenticeships and how they are awarded. In apprenticeship education, companies take on the lion’s share of the costs so they are selective in who they educate and how they provide training. There are three main costs that companies incur when they take on apprentices: Supervision and instruction; decreased productivity, and; mistakes and corrections. These costs are comparable to, and in many cases greater than, the wages an apprentice earns.

Supervision and Instruction

Apprentices must be supervised and taught by journeypersons or masters because this is the central dynamic of the whole model. In most cases, this is an intensive form of learning with a low apprentice-to-master ratio. In Ontario in most compulsory trades, the ratio is 1:1 – one master for every apprentice. This is a political choice rather than a necessity because there are many fields where one expert can teach several novices at once. For instance, aspiring doctors serve as interns where the ratio is often 10 interns to one doctor, so there is no magical limit on this ratio.

When a journeyperson is supervising and teaching an apprentice, they are taking time from their regular job to provide these benefits to the apprentice. The company pays the journeyperson for this service, but it is not work that can normally be charged to a customer. You will rarely see an invoice with a charge for, “master to apprentice instruction, 2 hours” on it. Journeypersons are often paid $50/hour or more so the real cost to the company is significant.

Decreased Productivity

Technically, the fact that companies cannot charge a customer for the instructional work a journeyperson performs is a loss of productivity. However, there is another element here, and that is the slower pace of work that occurs when an apprentice is involved. Showing apprentices how to perform a task takes time, and the apprentice is never as good at it as the journeyperson until they gain years of experience. Sometimes companies can charge a customer for this, but if they have bid for a job, they often have to leave out the extra hours required in order for their bid to be competitive.

It is true that having an apprentice around can also increase productivity at times. Having an extra pair of hands around to haul goods and tools, clean up, organize and pack the van and many other tasks is beneficial and may offset the extra time it takes for the apprentice to perform other work. It is important to remember though, that companies can simply hire a labourer to do some of these supposedly menial tasks, without taking on that person as an apprentice. Apprentices earn more and their wages go up every year, so there is still a cost to hiring an apprentice. But that extra cost is worth it for the company and the apprentice if both sides are committed to the relationship. The company trains someone who can take on more and more responsibility and the apprentice gets a proper understanding of how important the “menial” work is in any project.

Mistakes and Errors

Entry-level employees make mistakes in every profession. In some jobs, these errors have little to no cost. For instance, college teaching assistants and graduate students often make mistakes in marking papers and exams until they get more experience. But these mistakes have no real cost. Students complain and the grade gets changed and life goes on. But it isn’t that simple in the trades. When an apprentice doesn’t dig a trench to the proper specifications, an entire job can be held up while the mistake is corrected. This is a real cost when the job is delayed, or a sub-trade has to charge more because of the hold-up. Similarly, if an apprentice stages the pipe or lumber and it blocks the access route, delays, cancellations and extra charges ensue.

Neither of these scenarios is catastrophic, but that is by design. No employer in their right mind is going to allow an unproven apprentice to perform a project where the costs are high. If a toilet isn’t seated properly and it leaks, or a wiring mistake starts an electrical fire, the damage quickly escalates. Companies have to minimize these risks for their own survival, so they limit the potential damage they can do until they prove themselves capable of handling more technical tasks.


An apprenticeship is a form of learning that is distinct from a college diploma. The emphasis is on learning the technical skills of a trade. We often point to the fact that the purpose of an apprenticeship is to learn the technical skills of a trade, and that apprentices get paid, as the distinguishing features of the model. While these are indeed features, it is also important to understand that the costs of apprenticeships are also different. Companies take on the majority of the costs in an apprenticeship, so they have to be selective about who they will accept. In practice, this means that companies will only take a chance on people who have demonstrated their ability to be a professional. This means that would-be apprentices should take programs that focus on professionalism over trade-specific skills if they want a company to make this investment in them.

Contact the Team

Hamilton Campus

Campus Hours

How to Become a Skilled Trades Apprentice in Ontario in 2024

How to Become a Skilled Trades Apprentice in Ontario in 2024

The first step in taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities in the skilled trades is to become an apprentice. We get questions from prospective students almost every day that ask us how to do this. They’ve often done an online search, but even after that they don’t have a clear picture of how to become an apprentice. While the actual steps seem simple, the reality is that becoming an apprentice is the most difficult part of the journey into the skilled trades.

The Four Steps

If you go to the Ontario government’s website, you can find the four steps you need to complete in order to become an apprentice. https://www.ontario.ca/page/start-apprenticeship Those steps are:

  1. Find out if you qualify
  2. Find an employer or sponsor
  3. Apply for an apprenticeship
  4. Sign a Training Agreement

So what do these steps mean? Starting with step 1, in order to be eligible for an apprenticeship in Ontario you must be at least 16 years old and have legal permission to work in Canada. In some trades there are also some educational requirements, most commonly a high school diploma. The educational requirements are intentionally low because an apprenticeship is first and foremost a form of education, more than it is a form  of work. 

Assuming you meet the requirements above, the next step is to find an organization  (a company or union) who will sponsor you in your apprenticeship. You can send your resume to companies or knock on doors and hope that somebody will take you on as an apprentice. If they do, you can then apply for an apprenticeship, and then you work with that organization to sign a “Registered Training Agreement” with the government. After that, you are officially an apprentice and on your way to an amazing career in the trades.

If only it were that simple.

Step 2 is a Doozy

While these steps are technically correct, they tell you almost nothing about how to actually get an apprenticeship. This is like saying, there are only four steps for running a marathon:

  1. Buy shoes and the necessary equipment
  2. Train yourself to be able to run a marathon
  3. Sign up for a marathon
  4. Complete the race

If you said to a marathoner, “I can now run a marathon because someone told me these four steps”, they will probably pat you on the head and wish you good luck. And the same is true for the steps to become an apprentice. In both cases, there is so much that goes into each step that just knowing them does you no good. And in both cases, it is step 2 that prevents almost everyone from becoming an apprentice or running a marathon.

For apprenticeships, the reality is that even if your age, work status and educational background qualify you to become an apprentice, the same is true for thousands, perhaps millions, of other people. So “finding an employer or sponsor” is actually the most difficult part of the entire process of getting into the trades. It is more difficult than learning the technical skills of any trade, writing the exams in compulsory trades, or finding a job once you’re licensed. 

Nobody Gets Signed Without a Connection

The main reason why step 2 in becoming an apprentice is so difficult is because the cost of sponsoring an apprentice, for a company or a union, is very high. As I mentioned above, apprenticeships are primarily educational experiences, not work experiences. We as a society have decided that training people in the skilled trades is better done on a jobsite than in a classroom. So companies or unions have to provide significant resources to train new recruits in the technical skills of a trade. I’ll break down these costs in more detail in a future blog but the main costs are: having a journeyperson or master available as a teacher, decreased productivity, mistakes and corrections, and turnover costs.

Organizations cannot afford to invest these resources on just anyone. And when they receive over 200 applications for an apprenticeship opportunity, all with roughly the same  qualifications, they have no rational way to pick the best candidate. Moreover, most places have been burned in the past when they have taken on a candidate and set aside the time and money to train them, only to have the candidate quit in the first week or two. Given how frequently this happens, the only sensible thing for a company or union to do is to pick people who have a connection to the organization. Is your uncle in the union, or does a family friend own a plumbing company? If so, you have a reasonable chance of being sponsored as an apprentice. If you don’t have a connection, your chances are abysmal.

How to Find a Sponsor if You Don’t Have a Connection

While relying on connections is the rational, and perhaps the only, way for organizations to screen apprentice candidates, it is not sustainable, does not promote diversity, nor does it help fill the critical shortage of tradespeople. So if you want to get into the trades but you don’t have a connection, there are a couple of things you can do. The two most common approaches are to take a pre-apprenticeship program at a college to learn some skills in your trade, or take a job as a general labourer and hope to get signed as an apprentice later. 

The problem with getting a job as a labourer is that you are still waiting for an apprenticeship opportunity. Some labourers work for years before getting signed, and for others the opportunity never materializes. If you take a pre-apprenticeship program, at most colleges you still have to find your own apprenticeship. And you will graduate with dozens of others, so you are all competing for the same spots. 

At Trade Smart College, we don’t admit a student until after we have secured an apprenticeship opportunity for them. We don’t guarantee that you’ll become an apprentice because you still have to earn it, but at least you know you are working towards an actual position. 


Becoming a skilled trades apprentice in Ontario is more difficult than it should be given that we need over 100,000 more people in the sector in the next five years. While the theoretical steps are straightforward, the reality is that getting an apprenticeship without a trades connection is virtually impossible. If you want to get into the trades and you have a connection, you should use it. If you don’t, at Trade Smart College we currently have companies with apprenticeship opportunities in five different trades. Contact us for more information.

Contact the Team

Hamilton Campus

Campus Hours

Your Chances of Getting an Apprenticeship in Ontario: By the Numbers

Your Chances of Getting an Apprenticeship: By the Numbers

By any measure, Ontario is desperately short of skilled tradespeople. We need people now, but the first step in becoming a tradesperson is to get signed as an apprentice. The only way into a skilled trade is to complete an apprenticeship. You’d think that with the shortage, almost everyone who wants to get into the trades can get an apprenticeship. Well, the numbers tell a very different story, and getting signed is one of, if not the most difficult steps in becoming a tradesperson. So how does one get signed as an apprentice?

If I take a pre-apprenticeship program at college, will I get an apprenticeship?

This is perhaps the most important question that you should answer before deciding to spend your time and money on a pre-apprenticeship program. By their very name, these programs should prepare you for an apprenticeship, so the question is how well do they do it?

The reality is that no college in Ontario will guarantee you an apprenticeship once you graduate. By law, and by common sense, they can’t. So if there is no guarantee, what are your chances of getting signed? One way to find out is to look at what’s happened to students in the past. Luckily, the Ontario government provides data on this.

If 100 students start a pre-apprenticeship, how many end up getting signed?

This is a more specific, and more testable question for anyone considering a pre-apprenticeship program. Hypothetically, if you are one of 100 students who enrol in, for instance, a pre-apprentice electrical program, how many of you will end up getting signed as an apprentice? The answer is obviously less than 100 because:

  • Not everyone who starts the program will finish or graduate;
  • Not everyone who graduates will end up working or looking for work, and;
  • Not everyone who wants to work will get an apprenticeship position.

In other words, some of the people who start the program will fail or get kicked out, some people who graduate will decide to do other things (go back to school, stay home, travel), and some people will get jobs, but not as electrical apprentices. So what do the numbers tell us? Unfortunately, the results are a bit depressing.

In Many Trades, Less Than 30% of People Who Start a Pre-Apprenticeship Program Get Signed in Ontario

When we use the government data collected for four major trades and we account for the students who don’t graduate, who don’t stay in the labour force, and who don’t get jobs in their field of study, we end up with the percentages in the table below.


Program/Trade% Chance you will get an Apprenticeship*
HVAC (sheet metal, gasfitter)23


These percentages seem distressingly low, but they are based on official government data. I have some personal, anecdotal experience with these percentages. My oldest son graduated from an electrical pre-apprentice program several years ago and he was one of only 4 graduates from a class of 40 that eventually got signed as an apprentice. In fact, that 10% success rate was one of my personal motivations for helping to start Trade Smart College. I just figured there had to be a way to do better than this.

Why do so Few People Actually Get an Apprenticeship?

There is no single reason why these percentages are so low. In fact, there are even some good reasons why people don’t end up continuing in their chosen trade. Some people genuinely find better opportunities, decide the trade isn’t right for them, or get excited about doing something else. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that lots of people spend a lot of time and money on pre-apprenticeship programs and can’t get into their field. 

For us at Trade Smart College, we think these percentages are too low. And we think they point to a whole series of problems along the pathway into apprenticeship. The three main problems are:

  • Student and employer expectations do not match
  • There is no coordination of the supply and demand for apprentices in local labour markets, and;
  • Employers are reluctant to take on apprentices because of the significant costs involved in doing so.

Our diploma program addresses all three of these problems head-on. To find out how, please check out my other posts, or reach out to us and one of our team members will be happy to answer your questions. We are not perfect and we do not promise anyone a job, but we are determined to raise these percentages.


There is a shortage of qualified tradespeople in Ontario, but there are lots of people who want to fill that gap. Unfortunately, for every 100 people who want to go into some of the main construction trades, only about 25% are able to do so. This means there are barriers along the apprenticeship pathway, and they need to be addressed for the sake of students, trades companies, and the economy. Contact us, or come by for a visit, and see how we’re trying to eliminate those barriers.

*Footnote: Here is the basic formula to arrive at the numbers in the table.

C = G x P x F

Where C is the % chance of getting signed as an apprentice,

G is the Graduation Rate for the program

P is the Labour Force Participation Rate for the program, and

F is the percentage of labour force participants who are working in their field, or a partially related field.

For example, the numbers for Carpenters are as follows:

G = 60%

P = 73.5%

F = 53%

So C for carpenters is: .60 x .735 x .53 = 23.37%.

In other words, out of 100 people who start a carpentry pre-apprentice program, only 23 of them get signed as apprentices.

Here are the numbers for the other three trades in the table (expressed as decimals).


 G (grad rate)P (part. rate)F (in Field rate)C (chance signed)


Data for this table is provided by the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities for the 2017-18 year (the latest year for which data are available). The data used for these calculations can be found at: https://www.app.tcu.gov.on.ca/eng/labourmarket/employmentprofiles/index.asp . The programs pulled for analysis are: Carpentry and Renovation Techniques; Electrical Techniques; Plumbing Techniques, and; Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Techniques. All programs are Ontario College Certificate programs.

Contact the Team

Hamilton Campus

Campus Hours

We Need More People in the Skilled Trades

We Need More People in the Skilled Trades

For decades, we’ve been hearing about the shortage of people entering the skilled trades, and it seems like the problem is getting worse, not better. Projected shortages are getting larger, and the reason is that the trades supposedly have an image problem. I don’t think it is that simple, and better marketing of the opportunities in the trades is not going to fix the shortage.

The Trades Shortage By the Numbers

There are lots of estimates of the shortage of workers in the trades. The Ontario government says that over 100,000 new skilled tradespeople will be needed in the province’s construction industry alone, as it tries to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031. [https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/thunder-bay-skilled-trades-training-1.6993029. Across the country, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum estimates that 163,000 new, fully certified tradespeople will be required by 2025, which is only a year away.

The federal and provincial/territorial governments are all pushing out programs, incentives, tax credits and grants to address the problem. Most of these initiatives target one of three areas: raising awareness of the great opportunities in the trades; employer incentives to hire apprentices, and; education and training programs, often targeted at getting under-represented groups into the trades. If you look at the public pronouncements and press releases, they all seem to be working but we still have a shortage. [https://trades.ontariocolleges.ca/discover/major-labour-shortage-means-huge-demand-for-skilled-trades-and-technology-workers/].

It’s a Marketing Problem

The common refrain is that despite all the grants and incentives, people just don’t want to go into the trades because it is seen as a crappy place to work. For the last 50 years, every young person in North America has been told to go to university so they can have a better life. The only thing wrong with this messaging is that it worked too well, and now a university degree is believed to be the only route to prosperity and happiness. It was absurd 50 years ago and is even more absurd today, but like an irrelevant monarch, the residue of the advice is still around today. 

Trades work has been one of the many casualties of this advice. Life in the trades has, for several decades, been effectively characterized as “nasty, brutish and short”, to borrow Thomas Hobbes’ famous line, in comparison to the life of a university grad. One would only consider the trades as a booby prize if university was out of reach intellectually or financially. Thankfully, we have begun to correct this misperception. 

Life is Better in the Trades

Governments, industry groups and many public colleges have been promoting the trades quite effectively in recent years. We are gradually coming around to the idea that there really are great opportunities when one starts as an apprentice. A person isn’t condemned to die on the tools. They can go into a wide range of different jobs, from sales and project management to digital transformation and business ownership. These campaigns have been so effective that parents and some high school guidance counsellors now provide young people with a much more accurate picture of a career in the trades, including how the hopes of university graduates often don’t work out.

So the shortage of people entering, and staying, in the trades is no longer a marketing problem. The real challenge is that the pathway into the trades has been neglected for so long that it is difficult to navigate even for those who do want to take it. There are three main problems on the apprenticeship pathway. I’ll briefly address one of those below, and will cover the others in future posts.

Matching the Supply of Apprentices With Demand in a Local Economy

One of the problems with the huge numbers of apprentices required at a provincial or national level is that we don’t think about how this plays out in a specific city or region. If Ontario needs 100,000 tradespeople in construction, most colleges will open pre-apprenticeship programs and take as many students as they can. And the students will come, because they hear the same message about the terrible need for tradespeople, and they think there’s opportunity there. But the numbers get a bit wonky when we fail to match the actual demand for apprentices in a local economy with the supply coming out of colleges. In some cases, colleges are producing over 200 pre-apprentice graduates annually in each construction trade, and they release them onto the labour market in 2-3 batches per year. Yet the number of entry-level positions in that region is often less than 50. This is a recipe for disappointment, and there is a better way.

At Trade Smart College, we start our student recruitment process by finding out how many entry-level jobs we can secure. And we don’t admit a student unless we have an apprenticeship position for them. This is by no means a job guarantee. We don’t expect every student to pass our diploma, or to meet the requirements of their practicum employer. But at least we have an idea of how many jobs are available, in which trades, in the local area, right now. That’s a lot of qualifiers, and it makes the recruitment and admissions process more difficult. But our students are paying us to get them ready for an apprenticeship. We don’t feel it is right to prepare them for jobs that don’t exist.


There is no doubt that we need more people to start, and to succeed, in the trades. Our economy, locally, provincially, and nationally depends on it. We have largely cracked the marketing problem, and most people know that there are great careers in the trades that rival, and in many cases outpace, the careers available with a university degree. But there are still problems on the apprenticeship pathway, and we must try to match local levels of supply and demand for apprentices. Otherwise, the shortage will continue.

Contact the Team

Hamilton Campus

Campus Hours