March 16, 2009

Lifelong learning is a fact of life in the construction industry. It involves workers of all ages, skills and backgrounds. Computers are playing an ever larger part in worker education.

Construction Education

Lifelong learning is just a part of the job

Sometime back in the 1970s the expression “life-long learning” was invented. Most of us likely thought it applied only to professors who inhabit universities.

We were wrong.

Life-long learning has become very much a day-to-day reality in the construction industry.

It involves general contractors and trades alike.

Gone are the days when a tradesman went straight from high school into an apprenticeship program, completed it and never took another day of formal training.

In 2009, completing apprenticeship training and getting journeyman status is just the early steps in a long career. Much of that continued learning goes on outside the walls of colleges or trade schools.

In the Lower Mainland one of the leaders in providing training is the Vancouver Regional Construction Association (VRCA).

Ron Coreau is the association’s director of education.

The VRCA has classroom space at both its Vancouver office and its recently-opened Abbotsford facility.

Life-long learning, said Coreau, is a phenomenon that grew out of the 1970s.

“Technology started changing quickly and people realized they had to change as well,” he said. “The nature of jobs changed also. People had to keep up to date.”

The arrival of computers in the construction industry is a perfect example.

Only a few years ago, associations such as the VRCA operated large plan rooms.

Now those rooms have been dramatically downsized as the industry has largely switched over to receiving plans online.

Virtually every construction industry association offers some level of training to its members.

Phil Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) said that although the ICBA’s training programs are not as extensive as those of the VRCA, the association recognizes the importance of training.

That, he said, is particularly true now that the industry is facing an economic downturn.

The sharpest contractors, he said, are the ones who will survive. Both the ICBA and VRCA offer Gold Seal programs for construction managers, allowing them to work across provincial boundaries.

The programs are provided in co-operation with provincial trade schools.

The courses offered by Coreau through the VRCA are often not the “how to” type of hands-on trades training, although they do offer some of those.

Blue print reading is a popular practical course.

Other courses are short and deal with less concrete issues such as human resources.

Some courses are how to deal with younger employers, how to develop a superintendent, how to discipline an employee and how to motivate employees.

“Those sorts of items have been taking on much more importance than they used to have,” said Coreau.

The ages of men and women attending VRCA courses, he said, is right across the spectrum from 19-year-olds to 60-year-olds.

The VRCA is currently developing a course on dealing with substance abuse.

Courses exist for the unionized sector of the industry, but there is currently very little for the much larger open shop sector.

“Each employer should have its own policy on how to deal with this,” he said.

“It is a growing thing. Big companies have it all in place. Small companies probably don’t.”

The construction industry generally does a very good job of training its employees compared to other industries,” Coreau said. “We see a lot of companies coming in and paying for training.”

The VRCA offers companies specific programs with a fast turn-around time. Coreau provided the example of a Chilliwack contractor, who won a contract and then as he was about to start on the site, discovered the job mandated that his crew be trained in confined space work.

Coreau was able to offer the training on a Saturday and the contractor started on time.

As life-long learning has become the norm, the lines have somewhat faded between tradesmen and academics.

For example, the University of the Fraser Valley now offers a unique bachelor of business administration (trades management) degree. It is aimed at mature, experienced tradesmen and women who wish to move into construction management.

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