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How U of T Scarborough is helping to give these construction apprentices 'hope'

Three participants in the Hammer Heads program are working on Highland Hall at U of T Scarborough (Photo by Ken Jones)

“This program has really changed my life,” says Kamol Arif, on a break from working on the construction of the new Highland Hall building at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Afghan-born Arif, 21, is an apprentice sprinkler fitter who grew up in the Flemingdon Park area. He is working on Highland Hall thanks to an innovative program called Hammer Heads, designed to help young people from under-resourced Toronto neighbourhoods and Indigenous communities learn a trade in the unionized construction industry. Traditionally, construction has not been a very diverse industry, and competition to get the limited number of apprenticeship spots is very tough.

Thanks to U of T Scarborough’s support for the program, run by the Central Ontario Building Trades (COBT) and its 25 union affiliates, four other apprentices from Hammer Heads are also currently working on Highland Hall, all of them from racialized and underserved communities.

Once accepted into Hammer Heads, the pre-apprentices go through a rigorous, 12-week “boot camp” training – punctuality is emphasized, they must stay engaged and go through numerous evaluations – before being selected for a trade and placed on a work site.

Asked what they are getting out of the program, the five at Highland Hall all talk about the chance to get out of low-paying jobs and unsafe surroundings, and earn good wages with excellent benefits.

“There is something to look forward to – even retirement and a pension,” says Nehemiah Yordanos, 21, a plumbing apprentice from Thorncliffe Park. “I never looked ahead before.”

Arif and his parents are now looking at being able to buy a house. Gurmessa Abdullhi, 24, a sheet metal apprentice from the Sherbourne and Bloor area, talks about the benefit more succinctly: “Hope.”

U of T Scarborough got involved in the eight-year-old program after Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Arifuzzaman learned about it from its director, COBT Business Manager James St. John, in 2014. Some Hammer Heads worked informally on the Environmental Science and Chemistry Building, and then Arifuzzaman made a clear commitment: The U of T Scarborough procurement document for Highland Hall’s general contractor contained a requirement that the project include Hammer Heads apprentices.

Arifuzzaman notes that U of T Scarborough has long been partnering with community programs in under-resourced neighbourhoods near the campus. “We looked at our large and complex infrastructure projects and saw that there was a way to create training opportunities for young people, and to improve the quality of life for people around us,” says Arifuzzaman. “We could leverage our complexity.”

The program at U of T Scarborough is already counted as a big success, says Therese Ludlow, who works with Arifuzzaman as director of operations. “I’ve chatted with the Highland Hall subcontractors, and they’re very pleased with the quality of the people and how the apprentices have been working out,” she says.

Joe Capobianco, site supervisor for general contractor Aquicon, concurs. “I think it’s a great program,” he says. “I’m very impressed.”

The COBT’s St. John says that having U of T Scarborough involved adds a new level of visibility to Hammer Heads. “We’re thrilled to have such a prestigious organization get behind the program and support giving inner city youth a chance to change their lives,” he says. “We are looking at leveraging what U of T Scarborough has done – writing it into the contract – at other large institutions.”

Since 2010, Hammer Heads has graduated 352 candidates, including 19 women, and now takes in 90 new students per year. Highland Hall’s five, rounded out by apprentice labourer Ali Dualeh, 24, and electrical apprentice Victor Jimenez, 23, are employed by Aquicon and subcontractors Forest City Fire Protection, Urban Mechanical Contracting and Guild Electric.

The unions supporting them are the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 353, LiUNA Local 506, United Association of Sprinkler Fitters Local 853, Sheet Metal Workers & Roofers Local 30, and United Association of Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 46.