When Mitchell Benzmer enrolled in the forestry program at Charles Bloom secondary school, hard work wasn’t high on his list of priorities.

By the time he finished the program, he had a part-time job, was helping out as a peer tutor in Grade 12 and had been named Forestry Student of the Year.

“It gave me a pretty good work ethic,” said Benzmer, 18, who graduated last year. “Before forestry, I didn’t have a job and didn’t want to get one.

“This program was more hands-on and you’re not stuck in a classroom all day, so I got to learn how to use a chainsaw, a skidder and other equipment; the hard part was learning how to build wood projects in the classroom — we had to bring the wood back from the bush and mill it ourselves.”

The School District 22 forestry program is operated at Bloom and at the school’s woodlot, one of only two forestry programs in B.C. with its own active woodlot.

Forestry has always been a one-semester program where students learn and practise a variety of skills in the woodlot and the classroom, such as work site safety procedures, safe operating procedures of heavy duty equipment, first aid and metal fabrication.

This fall, the 30-year-old program expands to a full-year to include Skills Exploration 11 and 12, which will give students a “sampler” of other trades, introducing them to carpentry, automotive, electrical, plumbing, mechanics and welding.

Skills Exploration is jointly supported by the Ministry of Education and the Industry Training Authority (ITA).

“Skills Exploration is government of B.C. recognized and they thought a trade sampler was a good way to have students find where their interests lie,” said Tim Thorpe, career programs coordinator at Bloom. “Here they get to try six different trades to see where they fit best. We want students to leave with work-ready skills and credits.”

Forestry is open to Grade 11 and 12 students from throughout the district. In September, Grade 12 students spend the entire first semester as a forestry student until February; from February to June the Grade 11s will spend the entire second semester in the program. They break for summer and start again as a forestry 12 student in September.

“There is a huge demand for skilled workers,” said Thorpe. “With this program, kids are basically going to work.”

Grade 11 students receive credit for three forestry-related courses and science and tech 11; Grade 12 students receive credit for three Grade 12 level forestry courses. When the semester ends, students return to their home schools to complete the other course requirements for the graduation plan.

“Students will only work on their other courses during the semester they’re not in forestry,” said Thorpe. “When they’re in forestry they are a full-time forestry student.”

Forestry teacher Martin Tooms added that not all students in forestry are actually going to go into it as a career — the program is not trying to produce 16 loggers.

“You get to develop skills — trades as a career represents a solution to the high percentage of students who do not attend university,” he said. “We want to teach them teamwork skills and how to problem-solve and these are skills they can take anywhere, they are all transferable skills.”

Tooms said the skills students learn begin with something as simple as saying good morning.

“It’s building a strong work ethic and being proud of what you do, and it’s showing respect for each other,” he said. “The program isn’t primarily about making good loggers, but rather good employees, with candidates strong in a number of important characteristics, including enthusiasm, initiative, reliability and great communication skills.

“This whole concept has been needed for a long time, not just since they decided we need all these tradespeople. We need good skilled tradespeople, it’s not so much a shortage of tradespeople, but a shortage of good tradespeople.”

Thorpe said his department is actively seeking partnerships with local industry groups to support the program.

“We love to have community partners,” he said. “For things like tools, it’s a big price tag — $42,000 to purchase the tools required for the trade samplers and materials — so to have the monetary funds would be great, but we would also love to have ongoing partners. There are so many materials that companies could help with, such as metal and wood.”

Grade 11 Bloom student Michelle Britch was looking towards a career as a heavy equipment operator when she signed up for the program.

“I wanted to enroll in the forestry program because with joining the trades there are so many opportunities for you in the work world,” said Britch. “And at the time I joined, I was so fixated on becoming a heavy equipment operator that I jumped at the chance to learn more about it.

“Rather than sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer for my classes, I am able to work outside for six hours of the school day and I still get four courses done.”

Her future plans include working in the forestry industry as a heavy machine operator, but Britch is also exploring other options within forestry as it has more opportunities than she anticipated.

“The program has prepared me in ways I cannot begin to explain,” she said. “We have learned what it’s like to run equipment, work as a team, ensure everyone’s safety and much more. Myself and the other students have learned so much from Mr. Tooms and our certified faller Alan, and I appreciate it greatly.”

Britch said some students may look at the program as an easy way out of the classroom, but she said it’s anything but.

“Our program has many parts to it; it isn’t just cutting up trees and chopping them up for firewood,” she said. “When I first saw people walking into the shop doors I just thought that they joined to slack, I was wrong.

“This program is about work and getting involved in the trades system, and you don’t have to want be a logger or operator if you join, many of the guys and girls that I have had the pleasure of working with have gone into many different industries including gas, oil, construction trades and more. This program is for everyone.”

Chris Major, who graduates this year, was enrolled in forestry during the first semester, focusing on academics for the second semester.

“I took the program because I learn better hands-on than in a class room and because it’s a great experience of how the work force actually works out there,” he said. “Some of the highlights would be everything the program consisted of: running skidder, crawler, chainsaws, and hooking chokers.

“I’m not planning on logging as a career. I myself am doing my heavy duty mechanics apprenticeship. And being in the program helped me learn a few things here and there about heavy equipment because whenever any of the machines would break down I would always want to be in there working on it.”

For Benzmer, the program was his ticket into the work world, and he’s currently working on the pipeline in Saskatchewan.

“It gave me a work ethic, showed me what it’s like to have a real job, to pack a lunch every day, make sure you bring enough water and rain gear, always be prepared,” he said.

Tooms said it was an easy choice selecting Benzmer as the Charles Bloom Forestry Student of the Year for 2014/15

“It was a non-contest for the award: Mitchell was consistent with his infectious enthusiasm, strong work ethic, initiative, communication skills as peer tutor to the Grade 11 students, and consistent reliability,” he said. “Mitchell loved the program and gave his best every day.”