Peter Menzies’ commitment to trades education at Robert Service School (RSS) in Dawson City is setting an example for the Yukon.

According to Menzies, a teacher since 2004, there is a serious lack of technology-based education in rural Yukon schools. This may come as a surprise, considering the territory’s skilled worker shortage and the increasing demand for skilled employees from technical industries.

Menzies feels a greater focus on academic careers has left large gaps in tech education programs.

Working 60 to 70 hours a week, Menzies is on a mission to improve education opportunities. Last year he began a skills training program at RSS, and the kids are excelling.

At RSS in Dawson City, Peter Menzies is crafting trades as an equivalent career choice to academics PHOTOS: Evan Rensch

“The school is having success and bucking trends,” says Menzies.

Menzies was recognized in November with the WoodLINKS Success Award by the Wood Manufacturing Council, that provides the curriculum for the skills training. This national award is presented to an individual who demonstrates outstanding success in delivering the WoodLINKS program.

“It’s unprecedented for a Yukon public school to have a trades and tech program such as this,” says Dan Curtis, executive director of Skills Canada Yukon and the training program’s main sponsor.

Curtis shares Menzies’ enthusiasm for tech education and has worked closely with him for a number of years to deliver tech training in Carmacks and Dawson.

The groundwork for the program was crucial, and partnerships with various organizations including Skills Canada Yukon and the Yukon Workers Compensation Board were formed at the beginning of the planning process.

Early consultation with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in Council was met with enthusiasm. First Nations’ businesses agreed to hire graduates – a great success for the program.

“Dawson has been very receptive,” says Menzies, pointing out the support he received from the community was a key factor to launching the program.

Skills training at RSS starts in Grade 7, with a foundation in art, industrial design, mathematics, tech, wood and cooking.

In Grade 9, students pick between metal and woodwork, taught by Menzies, and cooking, taught by Tara Macauly. In Grade 10 the course becomes optional and continuing students make firmer decisions about their career paths.

Additionally, there are skills clubs in cooking, welding and woodworking that run after school hours.

Joe Karmel, the principal, and other staff and parents have strongly supported the program, and a trades and technology pathway is now enshrined in the school’s growth plan.

After the first year, students are showing plenty of talent.

Francis Bouffard, a Grade 11 student, built a motorized go-kart at school. The technical ability required for this project is impressive. According to Menzies the go-kart is “unstoppable” and he hopes to have a go-kart building club in next year’s program.

Stacked up against the rest of Canada, Yukon students perform exceedingly well in annual skills competitions run by Skills Canada. In 2009, Yukon students received six medals, while B.C. received eight, despite having a far larger population.

In these competitions, students showcase their talent in front of a large audience. The outcome can lead to competing on an international level.

Meanwhile, at RSS, there is a three-year growth vision for further development in skills training, including improving facilities, producing a minimum number of students ready for work co-op, bridging the gap in trade-applicable math skills, and keeping kids excited.

With a man of Menzies’ experience at the reins, the training is sure to be interesting.

Anyone in Dawson has seen his work outside of school hours – he is the treasurer of the local radio station, president of the Dawson City Arts Society, president of the North Klondike Highway Music Society, chairperson of the Recreation Board, and has converted cars to electric power to be driven by the Conservation Klondike Society on paper pick-up routes, to name a few.

These involvements can be fed into skills training, explains Menzies. For example, there is scope to get kids involved in sound recording and multimedia.

Menzies would also like to include more green energy education in the program. There is even the possibility of a future electric car conversion project for Grade 12 students.

As other schools show interest in what Menzies is doing at RSS, the program may become a template for training across the Yukon.

For Menzies, though, the most important point is the opportunity it gives the students.

“A trade career is just as worthy as an academic career,” he says.