Careers and the issue of race

Men shaking hands
Men shaking hands (Photo credit: Tima Miroshnichenko)

Recently I came across a post that has been making its rounds on social media. It is a picture of two guys one on the left in a suit and tie the other on the right in his hardhat and safety vest. The note at the top stated, “The guy on the left has a bachelor’s degree and law degree. He owes over $250,000 in student loans. He works for the law (firm) where he earns $130,000.00 annually. The guy on the right is a high school graduate. He has no college education. He works as an electric lineman. He owes zero in student loan and earns $160,000.00 annually. Teach your kids about skilled trades and alternative options to make good income & (and) have low debt. IT’S NOT ABOUT HAVING A DEGREE.”

What stood out for me was not so much the content of the post but the optics. The picture on the left is a White lawyer and the electric linesman is Black. The trades are excellent career paths to follow and there is now a looming shortage in the trades across many sectors. The average age of an industrial and heavy equipment mechanic is mid-fifties. Many opportunities exist in the trades in Canada as young people are shying away from it because of the stigma attached. Parents are also known to discourage their children from getting involved in the skills trade. To combat some of this stigma, the Ontario Government has earmarked $90m to promote the possible trades across over 800 secondary schools in the province.

A Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) report states that Canada faces a labour crunch when 700,000 trade people will voluntarily retire during this decade.  The labour force will see a 10,000-worker deficit in 56 nationally recognized trades over the next five years. The potential shortages will be more severe in high demand jobs such as heavy duty mechanics, broiler mechanics and welders. The potential shortage of skilled workers remains one thing, but there are other issues facing the trades which can be termed, “digital literacy” due to technology changes. Approximately 25 per cent of trade workers will need upgrading if they want to stay relevant and competitive in the workforce. Skilled trades have long been stereotyped as blue-collar jobs which are physically strenuous, dirty and more often associated with industrial accidents and deaths. However, with health and safety standards in place, the trades median income can range from $70,000 to $90,000 annually and even more.

This discussion is not about the economic value of the trades and four-year college programmes, but the stereotyping of who should go to college and who should enter the trades. Deciding on a career should not be a factor of race, social standing or affordability, it should be on preference, ability and adaptability for the career. The misguidance relating to career choice is linked to school guidance counsellors who, more often, channel Blacks and other visible minority students into the skilled trades without providing them with the broad spectrum of their ability and range of options possible. More often than not, it is because these groups of students are from low-income communities and have no mentors to help them achieve their full potential whether it is in “white-collar” or “blue-collar” careers.

I can recall when my son was 14 years old and in 9th grade in high school, he was taken to the podiatrist doctor to diagnose and treat a condition affecting his feet. During one of the visits, the doctor engaged my son in “small talk,” and the question arose of what he wants to do as a career. My son responded that he wanted to pursue a career in the sciences or become a medical doctor. The podiatrist responded to him that he should become a plumber. Neither my son nor myself responded to him. Needless to say, my son is on track to fulfil his career dreams. Let me hasten to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to become a plumber or any other tradesperson. However, we should not pigeonhole individuals in the career based on the colour of their skin or depth of their pocket.

Five years ago, Chika Stacy Oriuwa became the second Black woman to be a valedictorian at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine. When she started her medical programme, she was the only Black person in a class of 259 students. As a person of colour, she encountered adversity in racism and sexism. They even attacked her character and questioned her ability to be a competent physician. She described one instance at a hospital when she was mistaken for a janitor.

In many careers in Canada, Blacks and other visible minorities are underrepresented, while in other careers they are overrepresented per capita. Careers in medicine and related fields, law, business executives and media are greatly underrepresented. While careers such as nursing and personal support workers are disproportionately overrepresented. Students should be guided to select their career based on their ability and interest – not on affordability or made to feel they don’t belong in some professions. There needs to be enough of each group in society to represent their ethnicity. Blacks and other visible minorities are underrepresented in business leadership, government and civil society.

Attending college for four years or trade school is, correctly, not a binary choice. We need all classes or groups of workers. There are current labour shortages in health care, education and other service sectors. When selecting a career, compensation and costs should not be the only defining factor that guide our choice. Follow your dreams.

Fernon Wilson is a Jamaican born educator working in Toronto, Canada.

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