Renovator 101

Twenty-six year-old Gavin Crawford was tired of working his restaurant job. He dreamed of being a carpenter, but wasn’t sure he’d ever have the opportunity.

But everything changed when he was accepted into Renovator 101 – a brand-new program organized by the Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association (NSHBA) and the Black Business Initiative (BBI) that would help him learn the skills and experience he needed to break into the industry.

During the 12-week program, Crawford and three other students were trained in all aspects of residential construction through classroom lessons and on-site instruction. Each of them also completed a co-op placement with a local renovation firm.

Crawford was paired up with Conrad Mullins of Skymark Renovations. Crawford’s steady, reliable work ethic impressed Mullins during the on-site training, so Mullins offered him a full-time position during the graduation ceremony – and Crawford happily accepted.

“It’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun when it’s something you enjoy,” says Crawford. “With carpentry, your work is the first thing people see. It’s right there, front and centre.”

Mullins says the program is an ideal way to connect the youth of the community with the renovation industry.

“When I started out in the industry, it was a tough go. I felt like it took me a long time to get to the place I wanted to be,” says Mullins. “It’s nice that we’re able to give them a fast track to the good stuff.”

Describing Crawford as a “quiet fellow,” Mullins says the entire Skymark team has taken him under their wing.

“We’ve watched him come out of his shell, and really build his confidence – which is a big thing with young people,” says Mullins. “If you have the knowledge and the confidence, you have the ability to be a solid renovator. Gavin’s a good fit for us.”

Sherry Donovan, Communications Director of the Nova Scotia Home Builders’ Association, says the program has proved to be “invaluable” in training, mentoring, and introducing young people to the renovation industry.

“We recognized a need in the renovation market, so we began working with the Black Business Initiative to create an opportunity to train students,” says Donovan. “We wanted to give them a taste of what it would take to become a renovator – helping them learn to read plans, work with a team, and understand the hazards of the job.”

All four of the students had completed the BBI’s Constructing the Future program. Constructing the Future is the single-largest conduit of African Nova Scotians into the community college system, and introduces participants to various trades – such as plumbing, electrical, construction, and metal fabrication. These students had identified a passion for construction, so they were the perfect choice for the inaugural class.

Before the program began, Donovan sat down with three active renovation companies to ask them the all-important question: What are you looking for in a renovator?

“We wanted to find out which skills they’re asking about in job interviews, and how we could train these students to make them valuable assets,” says Donovan.

The program began in late December and wrapped up in March. The students worked in the classroom for two days, and then spent three days working on-site. The curriculum covered everything from demolition, taping, trimming to flooring, energy-efficiency, decks, and interiors.

The next training session is set to begin in November, and Donovan says there’s been great interest from students and members alike who want to be part of the program. Although more than 20 people are clamoring for a spot, Donovan says they will continue to keep the class under a dozen students in order to provide one-on-one training.

The applicants must undergo an extensive interview process in order to determine which ones are serious about pursuing a career in renovations.

“This is such a great opportunity for people who maybe didn’t have the opportunity to go through other training programs, but want to develop their skills,” says Donovan. “It allowed students to find out what it’s like to work in the renovation industry, and determine their specific areas of interest.”

Peter Briand, the owner of Econo Renovations, prepared and presented material during the classroom sessions, as well as supervising students during their on-site training. He says he appreciated that the program allowed his students to gain real-world experience.

“You get hands-on training with a community college, but this program cuts through all of the red tape and gives them direct access to working professionals,” says Briand. “It brings them right out into the field, and the small class size allows you to focus on helping them individually.”

Briand hired his co-op student, Leona Desmond, and says she’s turned out to be quite the apprentice.

“I keep hearing positive reviews from her job sites, and she always represents the company very well,” says Briand. “She’s been a great hire.”

One of the biggest components of the program was that students were connecting directly with industry professionals, and learning the ins and outs of the job that aren’t covered in a textbook.

Dan Monk, owner of Monk Renovations, says he and his team enjoyed working with the students and exposing them to a carpenter’s everyday routine.

“There are so many little things – like taking care of your tools, and cleaning up at the site – that you don’t think about after a while, but it’s all brand-new to someone who’s learning the industry,” says Monk. “They don’t always realize it’s not a nine to five job – it’s a 7:30 until 5:30 job – and all of the work that goes into everything we do.”

One of Monk’s pet peeves is when renovators aren’t properly trained, and he says it’s critical to have a combination of classroom learning and hands-on work.

“Yes, you have to be literate and articulate in order to communicate with your employers and your clients, but – more than anything else – your brain has to connect with your hands,” says Monk. “When you have a knack for something, you’re comfortable doing the task and it becomes natural – like riding a bike.”

You can’t complete a project without the right tools, and the students started off the program without so much as a hammer or flat-head screwdriver. When the NSHBA approached STANLEY and DEWALT about helping the young apprentices get their own gear, brand spokesperson Harp Gill says they didn’t hesitate to join in.

“There is such an importance in Canada to focus on skilled trades. There is no doubt a shortage, and attention must be brought to it,” says Gill. “We feel strongly that a program such as this one is a step forward to help reduce and bring attention to this shortage.”

Gill says DEWALT and STANLEY are supportive of the program because they are “strong believers” in training programs and apprenticeship programs being made available to students. They have been involved with Skills Canada – both nationally and globally – with local college programs in each province across Canada, and with training programs involving the native community.

So at different milestones throughout the program, the students were presented with STANLEY and DEWALT tools to use during the practical component – and to help them get started on the right foot. At the emotional graduation ceremony, surrounded by their friends and family, each student was gifted with a DEWALT Cordless Drill & Driver set, adding to their total arsenal of tools worth more than $650 – which included STANLEY hand tools and storage plus DEWALT power tools, hand tools and accessories.

“Our tools have been at key construction sites around the world and have helped build some of the most famous buildings in the world since 1843,” says Gill. “When it comes to being a contractor or jobsite professional, you need the right tools for the job.”

Donovan says the teams from Monk Renovations, Skymark Renovations, and Econo Renovations were “phenomenal” with the students – providing classroom instruction as well as hands-on training in the field.

“They see this program as the future of renovations, and we have to be able to foster those relationships that will increase the industry’s knowledge base,” says Donovan.

She keeps in regular contact with the students’ employers, and says she receives “fabulous feedback” on how they’re handling their new responsibilities.

“It was such a rewarding experience to work directly with the students, and get to see them grasp this knowledge and put it to practical use,” says Donovan. “It was a proud moment for me, to see them come into their own and take pride in the work they were doing.”

“It’s all about mentoring, learning, sharing experiences, and just growing professionals within the industry.”

Three of the graduates were hired into full-time positions during the graduation ceremony, and the fourth graduate is currently expanding their skill-set to secure employment in the industry.

Michael Wyse, Director of the Black Business Initiative, says the emotional graduation ceremony brought many of the audience members to tears.

“It just goes to show that you can achieve great success when a small group of people come together,” says Wyse. “I had a few parents come up to me and say ‘You’ve changed the potential for their future,’ and it’s really powerful when you hear that.”

He believes the program is a “win-win” for both employers and future employees, because the students are being trained and mentored by the people who will one day sign their paycheques.

“How many students are offered full-time employment by their workplace sponsor at their graduation ceremony?” says Wyse. “We’re not only training these students to their specifications, but we’re connecting employers with young people who are highly-motivated to work in the renovation industry.”

“We’re arming them with the skills and certifications they need to be successful, and helping them secure a job at the end.”

Wyse says construction is the core of the Black business community, and this program is an excellent opportunity to make the sector even stronger. He also says the program wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, as well as the BBI and the NSHBA.

“The renovation sector is in high demand, and we want people to be well-trained and highly certified,” says Wyse. “This is about giving people the opportunity to make informed decisions about their career.”

Donovan says the program is especially beneficial given the shortage of skilled trades in the province.

“We need to think about who is interested in living and working – and raising a family – right here in Nova Scotia,” says Donovan. “The more you can create these learning opportunities, the better the industry will be.”

Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke is a freelance journalist whose work regularly appears in many Atlantic Canadian newspapers and magazines, including The Chronicle Herald, Metro, Hub Now, Business Voice, Dugger's, Progress, East Coast Living, Bedford Magazine, and Southender Magazine. She also has several corporate clients.