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Back to school

October 7, 2016 ​​Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Conrad McFarlane is a journeyman welder who is pursuing a career change by enrolling in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta.

Conrad McFarlane is done with the oilpatch.

After more than 10 years working as a welder, the 29-year-old journeyman is now enrolled in the faculty of education at the University of Alberta.

“I have a few friends who are teachers and they seem pretty happy — they have a union, they have a pension, it’s a secure job,” McFarlane says. “I think teaching would be pretty fun.”

The education faculty has seen an increase in inquiries from tradespeople in recent months, which is possibly a result of the flagging economy, said Bonnie Watt, an associate U of A professor who acts as a liaison between the faculty and interested tradespeople.

“What’s happening now over the last few months … people are starting to reconsider what they want to do more so than they have in the past, I think,” Watt said. “There are many people over the last number of months who have expressed interest in getting their bachelor of education degree.”

McFarlane said he’s been thinking about making a change for about three years, and about a year ago he actually “pulled the trigger” and started looking into options and upgrading his high school courses. One thing that attracted him to the U of A’s education program was the fact that the department grants 30 credits of advance standing to those with journeyman tickets, which will fast-track his education degree by a year.

“I can get a degree in three years so that’s pretty cool — I figured I’d give it a shot,” he said. (McFarlane is considering a transfer into nursing, but if that doesn’t happen, he says he’ll be happy to follow through with education.)

Trade value
If this increase in interest leads to more certified tradespeople in Alberta schools, that will be good for students, said Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar.

“The trade itself is part of it, but the living experience is also a big part,” he said.

“A tradesperson can speak with authority about what it’s like to live that lifestyle.”

“What are the hours like? What’s it like working in weather? These are lived experiences that only an individual who has been there can share.”

Tradespeople can also act as positive role models who demonstrate that university isn’t the only path to success.

“I think there’s a great value in looking at trades as a viable alternative to an outcome in school, and encouraging children to work toward trades, as opposed to viewing trades as a fallback position,” Ramsankar said.

A key component, he said, is getting tradespeople fully qualified as teachers, so they have a solid background in pedagogy.

“Just as there’s skill involved with doing any task ... so there is with teaching as well,” Ramsankar said. “Having the ability to reach children ... becomes important.”

Tough times
McFarlane said the current state of the economy, with no end in sight, is a significant factor in his decision to switch careers.

“It’s getting harder and harder and so many people are out of work,” he said. “I used to be able to throw a bunch of resumes out and get four job offers the very next day. Now you’re lucky to get one in a month.”

McFarlane said that many of his friends have talked about going to university, but so far, he’s the only one in his circle to take that step.

“I know people who have been out of work for over a year. They’re getting desperate. They want to find different jobs. They want to make themselves more valuable, get some sort of different education in a different industry,” he said.

“A lot of them talk about [going to university]. It’s just pulling the trigger. I think a lot of people have a hard time making a big change like that.”

Besides the current economy, ­McFarlane said he’s simply ready for a change. Although he loved welding in high school and was excited to pursue it as a career (which he thought would last for life), he says he got bored of it after just a few years.

He tired of switching job locations every few months, never knowing where the next job would be. Teaching in a warm classroom has appeal after years of spending 12 to 16 hours a day outside, rolling around on his back in the dirt, in the rain and snow, freezing in the winter and getting burned by his own torch.

“I can do that now because I’m young, but I see a lot of older welders ... they’re pretty miserable,” McFarlane said. “I don’t really want to turn into one of those guys.”

Although he didn’t think of himself as smart in high school (he barely passed his courses, but then again, he barely tried), he’s now a diligent student.

“It’s pretty fun. I’m excited to actually learn,” he said. “Now I’m actually applying myself and doing really well so it’s kind of cool to prove to myself that I can actually do this whole school thing.” ❚

What about the money?
While the working conditions in the oilpatch are far from cushy, the sector allowed McFarlane to pull in an annual income in excess of $150,000 as a welder and more than $200,000 as a weld inspector. This income enabled him and his wife to save considerable sums over short periods and take extended time off to travel the world.

“I realize I’m not ever going to make that much as a teacher, probably not even close, but we’ve taught ourselves to live on not very much and we understand that we don’t need that much to live a happy life doing what we love,” McFarlane said.

“Lots of my co-workers think I’m silly going into education with cheques like that but, I don’t know, I don’t really care too much about it.”

Bridge program available
In 2010, the Alberta Teachers’ Association ­collaborated with Alberta Education and post-secondary institutions to create the CTS Bridge to Teacher Certification Program, which enables school boards to access provincial funding to allow tradespeople to work in the classroom while completing a teacher-preparation program offered by an Alberta post-­secondary institution.

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