Ontario’s Hammer Heads program will soon reach an impressive milestone this year, set to graduate its 600th worker into the province’s skilled trades workforce.

The 12-week program, created by the Central Ontario Building Trades (COBT) 12 years ago to prepare under-resourced and Indigenous youth from the GTA for apprenticeship positions by putting them through an intense bootcamp-style training camp, also measures success in other ways, such as cars and houses purchased by its grads.

A few dozen Hammer Heads alumni gathered in Toronto June 21 to welcome new registrants to the program.

Hammer Heads director James St. John, business manager of the COBT, says the passion expressed by the alums for their careers sends a strong motivational message to the newbies.

“Instead of hearing our voices, we want the learned and lived experiences. So it’s better to get the kids that have been through the program, graduated and bought a car or bought a house,” explained St. John. “Having their stories told, it really motivates the new kids that are starting, because we call ourselves a bootcamp style for a reason. You have to be punctual, you have to be putting in effort, because people are going to be paid an awful lot of money and we want to make sure there’s value on display every day.”

Among the grads on hand for the reunion was 24-year-old Nils Atuahene, an apprentice ironworker currently working with other Hammer Heads alumni at the Cadillac Fairview office project at 160 Front St. in Toronto. PCL is the contractor on the job.

Atuahene took the Hammer Heads program in 2021. Every day on the job is thrilling, he said.

“It was amazing,” he said when asked about his latest shift. “Every day I go, there’s something new at that site. While we’re building up one floor, that’s what makes it a joy, because we get to literally see the whole skyline, plus adding to it ourselves.”

Atuahene was recruited to Hammer Heads through the B.O.L.T. program, founded by Tridel. He was employed at Pearson airport as a ramp support worker and was an early layoff when COVID hit. Atuahene had always been interested in a career in the trades but his mother, of Ghanian heritage, thought he should aim higher.

“It was hard, trying to get her to transition into thinking that doctors, policemen are not the only jobs out there,” he said.

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He finally won her support for Hammer Heads and it was a major confidence booster, he said, as he endured the tough discipline of the program and pointed out the future rewards of his new career.

“Before I did not have a job. Now I have benefits, a pension,” said Atuahene.

Of the 592 grads, 164 were previously on Ontario Works, 246 came from Toronto Community Housing and 19 were in the shelter system. There have been 17 Indigenous participants and 27 female graduates.

“We think we’re making a difference,” said St. John. “We are hovering around 89 per cent of all of our graduates representing non-traditional populations.

“We’re doing things in an area that hasn’t been seen in our industry ever.”

Both Atuahene and St. John said much of the success stems from word of mouth. Atuahene’s brother got involved and he said another four or five of his friends are interested.

Among employers, it has been clearly established that the program produces disciplined, hard-working trades workers. Over 100 would-be workers have been ejected from the program for non-adherence to standards.

“Now the employers line up at the door trying to hire our graduates,” said St. John.

An additional essential part of the program is a one-year follow-up.

David McKibbon, senior vice-president for project management at Cadillac Fairview, said CF looked into the program carefully before deciding to participate.

“What I love about it as much as anything else with the program, it wasn’t 12 weeks and done,” he said. “It was 12 weeks, and then they monitor the kids on a regular basis.

“They speak to the employer, to the site supervisor, to make sure that everything’s going well. They course-correct if things aren’t going right, but you know, they tell these kids, ‘You’ve got to be better. You’ve got to be better than the average guy coming on.’”

There is about 95 per cent retention in the field for Hammer Head grads a year later.

As for the other notable stats, St. John noted a key benchmark used to be automobiles purchased but after several hundred it was apparent that was too easy and they started tracking homebuying.

“We’re already at 62 purchases from our graduates and that’s something that is truly remarkable,” said St. John.

Besides B.O.L.T. and other employers including Tridel and EllisDon, other supporters include Concert Properties, Dickies, Frontier College, Kodiak, the Ontario Construction Secretariat, Stanley DeWalt, the Toronto Argos, the Pinball Clemons Foundation, Toronto Employment and Social Services, Toronto FC, the Toronto Marlies, Toronto Rock, Workers Health and Safety Centre and the YMCA.


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What is hammer heads?

The Hammer Heads Program is a skill and employment-based training program within the construction industry offering apprenticeship career opportunities to the youth of under-resourced neighbourhoods in our communities.

Are hammer heads friendly?

Hammerheads are aggressive hunters, feeding on smaller fish, octopuses, squid, and crustaceans. They do not actively seek out human prey, but are very defensive and will attack when provoked.