Learning from the Best

Holland College

Holland College, with campuses and centres across Prince Edward Island, has full-time and part-time programs that offer one-year certificates and two-year diplomas, as well as adult education/GED. It has built its reputation on providing instructors with extensive real-life experience – instructors who have “been there, and done that,” and are ready to share that knowledge with their students.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019, Holland College has much to offer students. There are approximately 70 different programs – everything from trades to business to computers; two-plus-two agreements with select universities and colleges in both Atlantic Canada and the United States; and an international partnership with China.

The college sends instructors to China to teach trades such as electrical, wind turbine and precision machining to instructors there so they can in turn teach their students. “Sometimes they’ll send some of their instructors up to our college for three or four months, to see how we do things and for training on our curriculum or standards,” says Graham Hicken, Learning Manager and AWMAC Rep at Holland College.

The Cabinetmaking and Wood Manufacturing Program is basically a carpentry course focused on the finer detail work used in cabinetry, high-end furniture and kitchens. In 2006, Hicken decided to reintroduce this program to Holland College after it had been suspended for nearly a decade. “I started the program back up again to bring my trade back into the workforce,” says Hicken.

The nine-month pre-employment course allows students to work in the shop with 1.2 million dollars’ worth of gear and master the skill set needed to work in the industry – either for one of the employers in this field or on their own as an independent entrepreneur.

In-demand skills
Holland College is heavily involved with and proud of its participation in the National Skills Competition – an annual Canada-wide multi-trade and technology competition where students get to put their skills to the test. It takes place in a different location each year, and this year, it was Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the Prince Edward Island team had “42 different competitors from 42 different divisions.” All students from high school or post-secondary must qualify through the Provincials held in each province. Winners of the Provincials then have about three weeks of training to go to the Nationals. And winners of the Nationals qualify for the World Competition with Team Canada.

As trainer for cabinetmaking in Prince Edward Island, Hicken has had students take home the gold. “One of my former students went to the Nationals four times, and on his fourth time, he won the National Competition and he won the best in region as well, so he got two gold medals that year. I was pretty proud of him,” says Hicken. “And in 2009, we had someone trained for the Worlds, and he won the World Competition of Cabinetmaking in 2009.”

Focus on safety
Holland College is focused on safety. Each program has measures in place to ensure that its students are not only aware of safety but develop safety habits that will help keep them and their future job sites safe. “Safety is the very first thing out of the gate at Holland College, it doesn’t matter what trade program you’re in,” says Hicken.

From signage throughout the shops to lock-out-tag-out and eyes-ears-feet procedures, to making sure long hair and lose clothing is safely tucked away when around machinery, and knowing what to look out for before turning on machinery, are all part of the steps taken to keep everyone safe.

“I also have practical tests that I give my students,” says Hicken. “I’ll gather the students around and I’ll demonstrate a piece of equipment, my famous question being: ‘Any questions, concerns or comments?’ Then, if they have questions, we’ll go through it again,” he explains.

“I’ll keep doing that until everybody’s comfortable with that piece of machinery. When they’re comfortable with what I just demonstrated to them, and they’re ready to go, they’ll turn around and do the exact same demonstration for me. They have to achieve 80 percent comfort level on that piece of machinery.”

Being practical
There’s also a check list of certain procedures that the students are expected to do while demonstrating the machinery that needs to be met to get 80 percent. “If they get the 80 percent, they sign it at the bottom, I sign and date it, and that goes in their personal file,” says Hicken. “They’re not allowed to operate any piece of equipment until they pass those practical tests.”

The Cabinetmaking and Wood Manufacturing Program at Holland College gets its basic standards from the Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada (AWMAC). “It’s like the Holy Grail or Bible of our program,” says Hicken. “It’s the rules that we follow.” Through AWMAC, there are also opportunities for students to receive bursaries and scholarships.

Holland College puts a lot of effort into recruiting, with a team in place focused on just that, and open college days where the public is able to visit and see how things are done. The recruiting team travels all over Canada promoting the programs. However, it is the past students’ experiences at the college that play the biggest part in selling the programs to future students.

“If students are happy with the program, are successful and have a good experience, that speaks volumes when it comes to recruiting for any program,” says Hicken. “There’s nothing better than students that go out and say: ‘I had a really good experience. If you’re interested in doing cabinetmaking, this is a great program that you might want to check out’.”

From all over
“If you can give them a good product, they’ll come,” says Hicken. “I’ve gotten people from Michigan, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, and I’ve even gotten a couple of guys from the Bahamas.”

One of the challenges faced by the Cabinetmaking and Wood Manufacturing Program is that like many trades, when students graduate, chances are they won’t make the sort of salaries they might hope to. “It’s not a $20 an hour job in our industry,” says Hicken. “So, it’s a little tricky. But the thing with Prince Edward Island is that, because it’s so small and construction’s been booming for the last couple years, job opportunities have been great. This past year, when my students graduated, I had about a 90 percent employment success rate.”

There is willingness, however, at Holland College, to line up and help students find work after graduation. “If you want to be successful, I’ll go out of my way to make sure that you get the best bang for your buck and, if you need to be employed, I’ve got contacts all across Canada, down through the United States, and even a couple in Australia. I’ll do my best to help you get employed in whatever aspect it is that you want to get employed in, whether it’s going to a spraying company, kitchen company, or furniture company; whatever it may be. I don’t mind doing that because we have that great rapport with industry and with Canada as a whole.”

Holland College is also proud of its reputation, both nationally and internationally, its success rate and the great programs it has to offer. “People know we turn out good students,” says Hicken. “We have a lot to offer, it’s affordable, and it’s a nice place to come to.”

Hands-on learning
What really makes Holland College stand out is how most of its instructors have hands-on experience in their respective fields. “About 90 percent come from the industry or from the ground up; we’ve been there, done that,” Hicken says. “The advantage that gives us is that we can give the students some real life experience and real life stories, and make those connections so that it’s not just something I read and want to try as the instructor. No. It’s something I did and it worked or it’s something I did and it didn’t work, and I want to show you, the student, why it didn’t work,” he says.

“Instead of trying to regurgitate all the information out of a book, we have the ability to communicate with students and keep their interest,” Hicken says. “We are the real deal. I started out sweeping floors. I had a shovel and a broom for three months when I started in this industry and then I went up, and I was in charge of 300 people. So, I’ve been through the ground level and I’ve worked my way up the ladder, and I know what it takes. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve got a lot of them and I’ve worked with some of the best in Canada as far as cabinetmaking goes.”

As Holland College and its Cabinetmaking and Wood Manufacturing Program continues to grow and attract trade students, it will continue to offer the kind of hands-on knowledgeable teaching that it has earned a reputation for, where its instructors are passionate about sharing their knowledge with the next generation of trade workers. “I just can’t speak enough about Holland College, about how great it’s been,” says Hicken. “I love going to work. I call it Santa’s Workshop and I’m Santa.”

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 18, 2019, 9:08 PM EST

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