Armed with $90 million, the Ontario government appears ready to revamp secondary schools with the latest in high-tech equipment.

Announced last week by Education Minister Elizabeth Witmer, the four-year investment

is part of a wider effort to attract more students to trade- and tech-related industries.

In this year alone, $8 million will be channeled to school boards across the province. The money is intended for students in Grades 10 to 12 who are enrolled in nine technology-driven subject areas including: computer and information science, manufacturing technology and technological design.

While the details have yet to be worked out, the plan could include the installation of computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) workstations, computer numeric controlled (CNC) milling machines, and modular systems trainers in electronics and computer engineering technology. Some 300,000 students are expected to benefit each year from the so-called technological education renewal initiative.

Garfield Dunlop, MPP for Simcoe North, says there is an unfathomable need for such equipment. Last year, he visited school boards across the province, consulting with technical departments, business stakeholders, community colleges, faculties of education, and training boards.

“So much of the equipment in our secondary schools today dates back into the ’60s,” he says, pointing to woodworking and automotive classes as examples. “It’s not hard to find a 1962 lathe or tool-and-dye equipment (that is equally as old). Certainly there is a requirement for a lot more advanced computer technology. Everything cannot be antiquated.”

If school boards lack some of the most modern equipment, students will not show interest in these subject areas, he says. Indeed, biology is now attracting more attention than computer science and related subjects.

This does not bode well for trades, which are demanding more and more knowledge of high-technology. Consequently, there is a worldwide shortfall in tradespeople as more skilled workers are retiring from the vocational sector than entering it.

“This mass exodus will result in a serious skill gap in our economy,” says Greg Beselaere, spokesman for Skills Canada – Ontario. “As a result, we need more young people to begin training in these areas.”

It is the responsibility of the Ontario government and the province’s school boards to ensure the demand for tradespeople is met by developing the appropriate training programs, says Dunlop.

Dave Ross, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education, says the ministry is looking at apprenticeship funding that will complement the $90-million announcement. It is investing $120 million to revitalize the apprenticeship system by doubling the number of people in the province who enter it, he says.

But all of these efforts “will really be driven by the students,” says Ross.

“If they’re not going into areas where we’re going to put money in, then it’s wasted money.”

Accordingly, the ministry is waiting to hear from each board on how many students have enrolled in the nine tech-related subject areas this fall. It will use these numbers as a guide for allocating the money. Each board will be required to submit annual expenditures to the ministry to ensure they are complying with ministry guidelines that specify what type of equipment can be purchased. The ministry intends to meet with the boards to discuss these guidelines in the near future, says Ross.

If all goes well, the funding will facilitate the demand for school boards to partner with private businesses, says Dunlop.

“I think it will open up the doors.”

In turn, the funding will assist industry in recruiting young people who can become a productive part of their work force, adds Beselaere.

“(It) will help young people access some of the initial training and experience required to find employment,” he says. “It will also introduce them to some of the technologies being used in the workplace of today.”

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