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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Recently, I saw a TV commercial full of young adults enthusiastic about the training they’d received for new technical careers, assisted financially by the provincial government. With the serious shortage of skilled workers in Canada, I thought this was a step in the right direction.

As I watched the ad, I couldn’t help thinking of how at one time every child had an opportunity to learn technical skills.

My interest in technology started in Grade 7 when my class was sent to another elementary school in Scarborough, Ont., for shop class. It was the 1960s, so it was only the boys who spent the afternoon learning the Industrial Arts. Girls went to a room outfitted with a kitchen and sewing machines.

I can still recall the thrill I felt as I entered Mr. Douglas’s shop room for the first time. It was an amazing place. There were racks holding wood and sheets of steel, I spied machinery and tools everywhere. There was a distinctive smell, too, which I soon discovered was freshly cut wood. I recognized a few machines that I had seen adults use, but as for the others, I had no idea how they were used.

Our teacher explained that we would get to safely use all of the equipment by the time we graduated from Grade 8, but for now we would begin slowly, learning drafting skills, and then work with leather and plastic. Gradually we’d move up to metal and wood projects that could be built in the second half of our Grade 7 year. Each week we learned about a new machine. This lesson always began with Mr. Douglas detailing the horrible injuries the machine could inflict if not handled safely. He found ways of engaging his students to listen and learn to use utmost caution with each machine. We left each class with all of our fingers.

When we graduated from Grade 8, students could choose from a nearby high school for the arts, science and business, or we could choose the high school that focused on technical courses. At least half of the boys went on to study the technical courses and I believe that many chose that stream because of the confidence they gained during the positive experiences Mr. Douglas offered in class. I still know many of these boys. They have now retired from technical careers they found both interesting and financially rewarding.

Although each students’ skills varied, we were proud of making useful, artistic creations that we designed, chose the raw materials for, then shaped the raw materials and added finishes to complete items such as turned wooden bowls, paper-towel holders, metal dust pans and bookends.

I became an elementary school teacher, but I never lost my love for making things and have had a lifelong fascination with tools. I always have a wood project on the go and keep a vintage automobile around that needs fixing. Neighbours ask me where I learned these skills and I always answer, “In Grade 7/8 shop classes and, of course, by making plenty of mistakes.”

My three children have also watched and learned from my mistakes and successes, as adults they now have had the satisfaction of doing many of their own home renovations.

So why have these important shop classes – that encourage technical careers – disappeared from the Grade 7 and 8 experience? I can only comment on the two schools I worked in where shop class disappeared.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, I worked in an east-end Toronto school where Ken, the shop teacher, reminded me most of Mr. Douglas. His shop even had welding equipment and Ken trained the students well. There had been some progress made in the 20 years since the segregated 1960s, too. Girls and boys took both Industrial Arts and Home Economics.

The demise of these programs began when staffing committees were formed to determine how teachers were allocated to each school. Many school boards did not deem shops mandatory and the staffing committees had difficult choices to make. The two teachers usually required to ensure safety in shop class meant big changes to the shop curriculum and drastically changed the focus to designing mousetrap cars and Lego construction. Perhaps this was a result of liability concerns, but there was far less hands-on construction using power tools and hand tools. Students did not have the opportunity to build their own projects and learn to safely operate tools. The focus became more about group design work. At any rate, by the late 1990s I observed a dramatic drop in student enthusiasm for shop class.

At one point, in the 1990s I had a few students in my own classes who were interested in wooden boats. They were delighted when I got the school board’s permission and funding to build an eight-foot motor boat. For two months my students worked on it before and after school. They learned to follow plans, use basic tools and they were proud of the finished boat, which we called the Pee Wee. We christened it on a small lake at a staff-member’s cottage. It was an exciting day for all of us with each student having a ride. When it was sold for $300, each student got a paycheque of $15.

I worked several more years after most shops in the Toronto District School Board had been dismantled. When I noticed students that were having difficulty in regular classes, I brought in some basic tools and old lawnmowers for them to work on. And in some rare cases, these students actually got the motors to run. Watching their interest and joy in their accomplishments, I could see that these students desperately needed this alternative learning experience. Years later, I met one of these students at a car show and I was surprised when he mentioned he still owned the lawnmower.

Is there a chance proper shops will return? Most days I think not. But there are times when I hope that alliances between educators and industry can fund classes and provide the tools that I learned to use so many years ago.

Currently, in my workshop, I proudly display the wooden horse I created in Mr. Douglas’s class 57 years ago. I can only hope that in some future workshop a retiree proudly displays the widget he or she designed and built using an AutoCAD program while in Grade 7 and 8.

Rod McNair lives in Scarborough, Ont.

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