Partnership allows Revelstoke Secondary School students to train at Downie Timber

Downie Timber sawmill to accept Revelstoke Secondary Students for pre-apprenticeship training.

Grade 11 student Cole Cwikula is a candidate to do his heavy duty mechanic pre-apprenticeship at Downie Timber.

Give a kid a toy and he’ll play with for a day. Give a group of high school students a parking lot full of big machines, and they might play with them for their whole life.

Downie Timber brought some of their heavy machinery to the parking lot of the Revelstoke Forum last Thursday, Sept. 22, to herald a new agreement between the mill and Revelstoke Secondary School.

The agreement will give students the opportunity to start their pre-apprenticeship in a trade at the mill while they’re still in high school.

“That gets them the hours, gets them in the Industry Training Authority, and gets them started on their career direction,” said Jeff Colvin, RSS’ career advisor. “It puts them on the track for a Red Seal certification depending on the trade.”

The program is starting this year with one student a candidate in Downie’s heavy duty mechanic department. If that goes well, it will expand to other trades, including electrician, saw filer, welder and millwright. One student per year will be able to enter each trade if they’re interested and have the right skills.

“Nothing is firm as far as numbers,” said Colvin. “You need to have the right student to fit in.”

Grade 11 student Cole Cwikula, who’s father is a road builder, is on track for the program. His brother Jordan did his pre-apprenticeship at the mill last year and now Cole is following his path.

“I grew up around all the big machines,” he said. “I’d like to be a heavy duty mechanic, like my brother.”

The mill already employs students in several departments, but the new program will give them more opportunities and teach them more skills. Instead of just doing menial tasks, they’ll help with everything from minor tuneups to major overhauls of the plant’s heavy equipment, said Matt Angus, the mill’s chief heavy duty mechanic.

“They get a wide array of experience,” he said. “We think it’s important because there was a lack of trades in B.C. We were hiring people from all over the world.”

Downie estimates half its workforce graduated from Revelstoke Secondary School. The new program will help introduce students to the jobs available, and get them set up for the next level of their training. They also get paid well, with a starting wage of $17 per hour, said Angus.

He said the program is working well. “The ones who come to us are typically already involved in trades training in high school, so they’re interested,” he said. “That makes a huge difference.”

He emphasized that students should not only be willing to get their hands dirty and enjoy working with machines, but they also needed to keep up with their math and physics courses. “Some of it is bullwork, some of it is highly technical,” Angus said.

Shane Volpatti, who is the head of the mill’s maintenance department, said they are monitoring the heavy duty mechanic program and hope to bring in a pre-apprenticeship student as early as next year to train as a millwright. While they do employ a few students, the program would increase the accountability of both the student and their supervisors.

“As an apprentice, you’re going to get your hands dirty. It becomes like looking after a regular employee,” Volpatti said.

Grade 12 student Jacob McEwen isn’t in the program, but it does interest him. He’s been working with his grandparents company, Two Guys Logging, for a year, and wants to become a heavy duty mechanic. To get started, he’s enrolled in the program at Thompson Rivers University, and he gets his work experience working with the family business.

If not for that, he would have jumped at the opportunity to work at Downie.

“I want to get my own service truck and start working out in the bush,” he said.

Colvin said it made sense to start the program with Downie, given the mill already employs lots of graduates, and they’re right next door to the school.

The school is exploring opportunities with other businesses in town so students interested in other careers can get training here. “There’s opportunities for other employers, it’s just a matter of contacting the school,” he said.