Sharpening Your Skills

The combination of theoretical training and apprenticeship work can lead to a rewarding career in carpentry and other skilled trades.

By Norah Myers

Neil MacDonald teaches at Red River College’s carpentry program and grew up surrounded by carpenters. Neil discovered a natural affinity for the trade from the age of 11 and has worked in the business since he was 17. Neil’s father originally encouraged him to be an engineer – and Neil took courses in high school that prepared him for university – but carpentry felt natural to him and he chose to remain in the trades.

He has built houses in Fort Simpson and Thompson and condominiums in Yellowknife in addition to owning his own business and teaching carpentry at both the high school level and college level.

In order to become a certified carpenter, a student must first work as an apprentice. A prospective apprentice must research different companies and find one to take him or her on. The student and supervisor sign an agreement and the supervisor sets to work shaping his or her protégé into a successful bricklayer, welder, electrician, or carpenter (among others).

Charlie at work in a shop at Red River College.

After six months of apprenticeship work, the student enters the classroom to learn the theoretical side of what he or she currently practices on the job. During the four year carpentry program, a student spends twenty percent of his or her time in the classroom and eighty percent on the job. In order to complete each level of the carpentry program, each student must work 1,800 hours on the job. Though a student can start working as an apprentice while still in high school (and earn credit toward certification from Red River and other places that offer carpentry programs), some people earn undergraduate degrees or do other work before entering the trades.

In level one of the carpentry program, students learn how to hammer things, nail things, and use hand tools, portable power tools and woodworking machines correctly and safely. They also take WHIMIS safety. In level two, students build on their skills from level one and learn roofing, concrete, framing, and blueprint reading. In level three, students learn exterior finishing and in level four they review everything in preparation to write their Red Seal tests (an interprovincial exam). In order to pass the test, a student must score 70% or higher. Once a carpenter has a Red Seal, he or she is able to work in carpentry all over Canada. Neil has worked in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and Alberta.

Neil stresses the importance of completing grade twelve before considering entering the carpentry field. He notes that someone considering carpentry as a profession should study applied mathematics, if not pre calculus. Carpenters use geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. They make two dimensional blueprints into three dimensional structures.

Carpenters construct windows, doors, dry wall, and concrete. They do framing, backing, and finishing. Carpenters work collaboratively with electricians and plumbers to create a building. They also do maintenance and repair work. All of it requires precise calculations and strong attention to detail, and accuracy.

It’s a myth that the trades are for people who don’t have book smarts. Mechanics require strong physics skills. Electricians require strong math skills. Employers and people who train apprentices also value a person’s willingness to work, timeliness, and conscientiousness. Employers are willing to help dedicated people build on their skills. Neil is very happy in his work as a carpenter and teacher.

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