Convocation 2024: International students see futures in Canada thanks to trades diploma

“It was a decision to make my life better”

You can see Alberta’s labor shortage as a challenge and an opportunity.

To the former, the latest job market forecast highlights numerous fields expecting shortfalls of more than 3,000 jobs by 2030, including construction trades labourers and helpers, contractors, and home building and renovations managers.

The opportunity, then, goes to career-seekers – some being new arrivals from other countries, the biggest driver of Alberta’s recent growth. The catch, though, is that those wanting to become apprentices must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

That’s where trades diplomas come in, introduced at NAIT in 2021. After two years of on-campus learning, international students have the option to obtain a post-grad work permit and start earning hours toward journeyperson status as apprentices.

The pathway can be “a very good stepping stone to get you where you need to be,” says Advanced Plumbing Technology chair Jim Jacques (Plumber ’01).

For soon-to-be plumbing diploma graduates Alex Konde, from Uganda, and Dong-Hyun Lee, from South Korea, that step is in the direction of a mutually beneficial relationship. Right now, Alberta – with a rapidly growing economy – needs all the help it can get.

And, right now, there are people eager to provide that help, knowing it’s their chance at a new start.

Learn what you can do with a trades diploma

Leaving home

nait advanced plumbing technology student dong-hyun lee

Uganda and South Korea are as different from each other as either is from Canada. But Konde and Lee’s stories converge: both saw futures here that seemed otherwise impossible.

Now 28, Konde was born in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. He grew up gravitating toward the trades, specifically plumbing and sheet metal. But despite the country’s booming economy, Konde was concerned given persisting high rates of poverty and government corruption.

If he wanted a rewarding career, Konde felt he had to leave.

“It was a decision to make my life better because, back home, it's very difficult,” he says.

Lee struggled, too, though for different reasons. The economy and political environment of South Korea are stable. But, despite being born and raised there, the 36-year-old found some norms challenging, such as an expectation to defer to elders, a custom that sometimes made him uncomfortable. What’s more, the move would satisfy his need for more space, going from a country of 516 people per square kilometre, to Canada, with an average of four.

After Lee worked unhappily through a variety of jobs, his mother suggested that he consider trying life elsewhere, “and find your way.” He agreed. “I’m not young anymore,” Lee thought. “This is my last chance to live my own way.”

Everyone needs a plumber

Upon arriving in Canada, both men tried other programs before landing at NAIT. Konde enrolled in university-level environmental sciences, which he soon realized was counter to his calling. “I have a passion for trades,” he says. “I’m a hands-on person.”

“I have a passion for trades. I’m a hands-on person.”

On the advice of his sister, a doctor in South Korea, Lee started in nursing. He left after a term, concerned that his English needed improvement. To stay in Canada, he needed to stay in school. The practicality of the trades appealed to him, and of plumbing in particular.

“Everyone, everywhere needs the facilities and infrastructure of plumbing systems,” he says. “I had a desire to become an expert in a field that is essential in everyday life.”

Overflowing with opportunities

photo of alex konde, nait advanced plumbing technology student in front of a large Edmonton Oilers logo

Plumbers are currently in high demand in Alberta, with the need projected to persist. Job opportunities are plentiful, points out Jacques, and varied thanks to commercial and residential applications, new builds, and service calls and repairs.

A plumber can rapidly get a sense of their preference in the discipline by “spending a little bit of time in residential, a little in commercial, a little on service calls – find what you like,” says Jacques.

For international students such as Konde and Lee, he adds, “You come here and all of a sudden the decisions are up to you.”

The silver platter

That decision is but the first step Konde and Lee will take as they pursue goals that could lead them through their careers and lives.

Lee’s are modest. In leaving South Korea, he says, “I wanted to live quietly, like moss.” He’s attracted to the tranquility and solitude of nature. “My final plan is to go to the Northwest Territories,” he says. He envisions setting aside his phone, turning off the TV, and reading novels when not spending time outdoors.

Konde has more concrete plans. He intends to work at least five years, “then get my life together.” He has a partner and son in Uganda whom he wants to bring to Canada. Once they’re settled, he’d like to build on his diploma with a foray into engineering. He wants to be able to point out major projects and for people to know he was essential to their construction.

“There is nothing laid on a silver platter,” he says. “There have been ups and downs, but it's all about mindset, right? If you have a goal and you want to achieve it, then you have to put in the hard work.”

Lee would agree the effort is worth it. Like Konde, he has no regrets about his decision. An education in trades is helping him find his way, even if in a relatively unfamiliar place.

“I wanted to settle down in Canada and start a new chapter in my life, so I enrolled in a school to get a skill,” says Lee. “It gave me hope to chart a new path.”

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