About Ian Howcroft
Ian Howcroft (@IanSkillsON) is an action-oriented leader and decision-maker with a focus on customer needs and service. He is the CEO of skills Ontario and one who can lead a team and is able to build consensus to maximize and leverage the strengths of team members to the overall benefit of the organization. Ian has a strong background and interest in advocacy, government relations, public policy, legal/regulatory issues, administrative law, and human resources.
**Please note that all of our transcriptions come from rev.com and are 80% accurate. We’re grateful for the robots that make this possible and realize that it’s not a perfect process.
Sam Demma (00:00):
Welcome back to another episode on the High Performing Educator podcast. This is your host and youth speaker, Sam Demma. I had an amazing conversation months ago with Shelly Travis, who is the, the state president, the national director of skills USA, which is a career and technical skills student organization. And after the conversation ended, she gave me the name Ian Howcroft to follow up with and hopefully get him on the show as well.
Sam Demma (01:06):
Ian is the CEO or Chief Executive Officer of Skills Ontario, an organization dedicated to promoting skill trades and technology, careers to young people. We have a phenomenal conversation on how COVID affected their operations and what they’ve done to adjust and pivot. . You probably all hate that word by now, but we talk about how he’s pivoted his organization, how they’re continuing the work they’re doing and still making an impact on the lives of so many young people and students. I’ll see you on the other side of this interview, enjoy. Ian, thank you so much for coming on the high performing educator podcast. It is a huge pleasure and honor to have you on the show today. Why don’t you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and why you got into the work you do with young people today?
Ian Howcroft (01:53):
Well, thanks Sam, I appreciate the opportunity. I am with an organization called skills Ontario. We’ve been around for just over 30 years and our raise on debt is to promote skilled trades and technology careers to young people. I got interested in that from my former job at an organization called Canadian manufacturers and exporters. I was there for almost 30 years in a variety of capacities, but every year I was there, one of the top three priorities, and usually the number one priority was a skilled shortage. We’re not gonna have the skilled workers for the future. How can we make relationships with schools and other organizations to promote skilled trades? So I was always involved in that and I ended up on the board of skills Ontario. And when the opportunity came to take over as CEO I was contacted and thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about solutions and things that we can do to help move things forward and create a clearer pathway for young people to understand what the potential is, how they can follow their path of, of career aspirations and how we can do some linkages with business and better engage them and also wanted to do things to promote to young people, but also part of that was getting to their parents and getting to some other audiences because they have a huge impact and influence on their kids. And many of them don’t know what the real opportunities are with regard to a future in skilled trades or technology careers. They say go to university not knowing what the full opportunity is. So we’re trying to dispel some myths and create some realities about the positive aspect of a career in skilled trades and technology careers.
Sam Demma (03:21):
Did you know when you were working in manufacturing that one day you’d be in an organization running an organization like Skills Ontario did you plan to do this when you were younger or like when was the moment when it was like, whoa, I’m making this shift and I’m, I’m gonna make this pivot?
Ian Howcroft (03:38):
Well, I was I, I thought when I went to Canadian manufacturers, I would be there three to five years get some experience make some contacts and move on, but that organization afforded me a whole lot of opportunities to do a whole lot of different things from, from membership business development, policy work speaking dealing with a whole variety of manufacturing related issues, one of them and skills. So I ended up staying there for almost as I said, 30 years, but my role changed and the issues changed and my passion continued to grow. So I also realized at some point I did not want to retire from an organization that I started with. So I was keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities that I had an interest in and passion for myself. So when this one came up, I thought this is something I should look at. And and, and I did thankfully and I’ve been there for about two and a half years now.
Sam Demma (04:29):
That’s awesome. So cool. And I’m sure the first year working there with working with skills, Ontario has a, has been a lot different than this current year.
Ian Howcroft (04:38):
Yes. Yes. And when I started there, I thought there’s huge challenges, always with challenges come opportunities. And we got things moving forward. We had a lot of staff changes. We were trying to do things a little differently. Last year we’re off to a great start. And then we experienced here in Ontario, the labor disputes for the teachers. I thought to myself, what could be more challenging? The teacher dispute for like skills Ontario, nothing could be more frustrating. Nothing could be more problematic than that, but I was proven wrong again, as we got into the pandemic in March and that just changed everything we could deal with the teacher strike. We would work around that, but the pandemic just caused us to go back to basics and say, what do we need to do? How can we do that? Given the restraints the constraints and the realities that we have to face knowing that the health and safety of, of students staff and everyone was the number one priority.
Sam Demma (05:30):
Hmm. I like how you said with every challenge though comes an opportunity. And I wanna focus on that for a second because what we focus on grows, what opportunities have you seen along with the challenges in co of it right now?
Ian Howcroft (05:43):
Well, I, I think we’re learning new and, and different ways to better engage our staff and, and our audiences. We’re not allowed to hold in person events right now, which is a challenge when you’re trying to promote skilled trades. You want to have that hands on experiential opportunity, but we can’t do that. So what we did was pivot and started offering everything online, virtually remotely tried to have an experiential component to that, so they could do it in the classroom or, or, or do it at home. But we were, I think being very, as I like to think innovative and creative is how, how can we make this a meaningful experience? How do we get the, the interaction there? So we were able to link in with with students and with parents when everyone is in lockdown at home, we came up with a skills at home program.
Ian Howcroft (06:27):
Here’s something that parents can can learn from and watch encourage their kids to take part in it. The first one was a, a rollercoaster challenge using materials. You could readily find at home, build a rollercoaster and see how long you, you keep a marble in the air for, or on the roller coaster for. So we started looking at how we can do things to continue to engage our audiences, to continue to engage our partners, and also work with our main partner, the, the government of Ontario to deliver what their message was, was there’s an important opportunity and we need skilled trade. We need technology people and this is an opportunity for, for skills on Ontario to really come in and, and fill that, that vacuum that was left when everything else was being shut down.
Sam Demma (07:07):
That’s awesome. A lot of people have told me recently that the state of education right now, or anyone who works in, in the educational industry is like throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what’s the, and,
Ian Howcroft (07:20):
And I, and I think, you know, we’re, we’re all trying different things. We’re all faced by the, the same challenge. So how do we, how do we do something that’s still gonna be impactful, still gonna create a learning environment for kids. And I know the, the teachers and the boards of education and the other partners involved are, are trying on to do everything they can to make it still a meaningful year for them. But it is a, it is a challenge, but I think as you said there’s creative ways to come up with new ideas and opportunities to, to address some of these challenges. One thing I’d just like to add is that with the remote delivery of our programs, we found out that that’s not something we’re gonna stop when the pandemic is over and we can go back to in person. We also think there’s still an important complimentary role to have remote delivery and virtual delivery. We’re able to engage everybody around the province. Whereas sometimes it might have been a geographic possibility for someone to attend an event or to come to a competition or to be in something that we’re doing a, the remote delivery allow us to engage them in a whole different way. So we’re gonna continue with that and use that as a complimentary program for for moving forward after the pandemic.
Sam Demma (08:29):
And it makes the presenter more easily and readily available. Like last week I did three presentations, one in Saskatchewan, one in New Jersey, one in Toronto, all from my bay. Like there’s no, you know, it’s, it’s from a delivery and an audience perspective. There’s so much possibilities in the virtual world. Tell me more about some of the things that have stuck. I love the skills at home, the, the challenge to build a roller coaster. What else have you experimented with as an organization over this time that has worked well so far?
Ian Howcroft (09:00):
Well, some of the things that we’re doing now we were talking about, but we moved forward a lot more quickly. We talked about having a podcast, but hadn’t yet done that. So this allowed us the opportunity to create the podcast. And one of our folks guy named Dan Cardinal put together a podcast. So we’re doing a podcast that we’re using to promote skilled trades and highlight individuals, highlight partners, highlight people that have gone through and become a, a skilled trades person and what they’ve done, how they overcame some challenges and are now leading a satisfying career and doing, doing really well. We, in the summer run something that we call our the summer camp program. We did about 25 camps around the province. They were in person weeklong camps. Couldn’t do that this year. So we said, if you wanna provide again, that opportunity for kids.
Ian Howcroft (09:46):
So we came up with 35 different camps and they were half day, full day or two day events. And we engaged twice. As many kids had over 800, approximately 800 kids involved in our summer camp program, which is almost twice what we would normally have and the results that we got, the evaluations we got were even more positive than what we’d had in the past. Now, our event, our, our evaluation in the past were very positive, but these ones were were even more positive because it allowed more kids to get involved in a whole variety of things and try things at home. Some were like tutorials, how to fix a bike, how to change a bike tire or, or a bike chain, but others were doing some, some cooking or baking at home. So we tried to make sure there, there was something there for everyone. So even when we go back to our in-person camps, we will have the complimentary virtual camps for those that can’t make it to a college, or can’t make it to one of our sites where we’re hosting an in-person camp. So it’s been a, a great experience in that regard. And we’re using that to, to learn by and move forward with. Oh,
Sam Demma (10:43):
Oh, that’s awesome. That’s really amazing. And, you know, despite the challenges, skills, Ontario has done an amazing job, it seems at, at pivoting. But I’m curious to know, are there any challenges that you have learned from cause we talked a lot about what what’s worked really well. But I think with any challenge, there’s great learnings. Like what is, what are some learnings that you think might be beneficial for other educators to hear about this new world?
Ian Howcroft (11:06):
Well, in, in general, I think what I’ve learned or had reconfirmed is don’t just go on assumptions. Mm-Hmm that, oh, that won’t work or this won’t work try things. And if it doesn’t work, adapt it, change it modify it, tailor it because if you just say, so that won’t work or that hasn’t worked before, I don’t think this will work. You’re gonna limit yourselves. Whereas if going with the more positive attitude and say, let’s let’s, what do we wanna do? Let, let’s try this. And if it’s not working or it’s not resonating with the audiences, partners make some, make some changes and, and don’t, don’t be afraid. This gave us an opportunity. Let’s try things. We we’re all in new territory here. So we don’t have to worry about, about failing. We everybody’s floundering.
Ian Howcroft (11:50):
So this, that gave us an opportunity to try things that perhaps we had talked about, but hadn’t done, but we’re able to move forward with, and, and we’re we’re as a, we have about 35 staff around the province now. And when we could get together, we did it a few times a year. But that was it. But now we’re, we’re getting together with, with teams, meetings or zoom meetings, and we’re engaging and trying to make sure we have no or, or fewer internal silos, so that we’re all leveraging what each other are doing, better understanding what each other are doing. So we may be farther apart physically, but I think we’re closer together a as teamed members and as colleagues within the organization. And I think that’s allowing us to do more and again, have more impact with our audiences, with the students, with the partners, with the educators.
Sam Demma (12:33):
That’s awesome. And I’m sure with the increased internal communications, you’re hearing a lot more about what the students want. What are you hearing as a whole organization from students right now? What is it that they’re, they’re asking you for? What are they challenged with specifically that, that you’ve heard of?
Ian Howcroft (12:50):
I think there’s a, a real appetite for information and how do I enter a skilled trade or technology career? And it’s much broader than many people think, you know, think they, they think of the traditional trades or traditional skills, but there’s like 152 skilled trades in Ontario. And we, we broader with, with technology. So we’re doing coding, we’re doing robotics mechatronics a whole lot of opportunities. So there’s a lot of interest in that, even though we’re having to do that remotely and doing the presentations virtually to the classrooms, there’s, there’s still an awful lot of interest in that. And we’re are going, we’re looking at how do we get the skills kits put together to give them that experiential opportunity at home? How do we make sure that they’re able to engage and get some experience with the limitations that have?
Ian Howcroft (12:50):
I think there’s a, a real appetite for information and how do I enter a skilled trade or technology career? And it’s much broader than many people think, you know, think they, they think of the traditional trades or traditional skills, but there’s like 152 skilled trades in Ontario. And we, we broader with, with technology. So we’re doing coding, we’re doing robotics mechatronics a whole lot of opportunities. So there’s a lot of interest in that, even though we’re having to do that remotely and doing the presentations virtually to the classrooms, there’s, there’s still an awful lot of interest in that. And we’re are going, we’re looking at how do we get the skills kits put together to give them that experiential opportunity at home? How do we make sure that they’re able to engage and get some experience with the limitations that have? So we, we still feel we have a very important role and there’s still an awful lot of interest.
Ian Howcroft (13:40):
And the Ontario government is highlighting the opportunities and skilled trades. So we’re working with our partners in business, our partners in labor, our partners in the education system to make sure that kids aren’t at a disadvantage because of the COVID limitations. We’re still able to provide them with the information to promote the skill trades and to give them information that that they can benefit from. When we were in, in, in the March and April timeframe, we tried to, well, what are the programs that we have? What are the products that we have? So let’s modify them so that we can put them available on our website or make them digitally we’ve updated some young women in, in trades. Our other programs that we have, we do first nations programming. So how do we make sure that we’re still offering relevant, impactful, and, and exciting events that will engage kids and provide an interactive experience for them?
Sam Demma (14:31):
Well, that’s awesome. That’s really cool. And you mentioned zoom calls and go Hangouts. What has been successful with virtual events? Is it doing a zoom webinar? Is it when all the students can see each other’s face on zoom? What has worked the best for you guys?
Ian Howcroft (14:48):
I, I think it depends on the event and we’re somewhat guided by what platform schools will allow. You know, Google hangout was one that I think the schools were, were using and we were getting into the, the classrooms that way. Yeah. We used WebEx for some of our larger events. We do when we have our normal competition, we have at, at the Toronto Congress center, we have about 2,400 hundred kids competing. We have almost 40,000 visitors. We hope the largest young women’s conference in Canada with 2000 participants, girls and young women and supporters, mentors, volunteers come out. So we had to gravitate towards the virtual delivery, but I was really pleased with our young women’s conference. We had about almost 1500 people sign on, lot more registered, but we have 1500 participants in our virtually young women’s conference.
Ian Howcroft (15:36):
We did a, a business summit. So we’re looking at the various platforms to continue to make sure that they’re continue to be more and more interactive and engaging for, for the participants as cuz we’re right now, we’re going to, we’re planning to do our competition virtually in the, in the spring we were won’t I don’t think be able to have in person events. And if we do, they’ll be smaller and have to modify that for the most part, we’ll be doing it virtually. So we’re looking at what’s the best platform to do that. What gives the kids the best opportunity to have an experience that they can have as meaningful, that they can win and be proud of their gold or silver or bronze medal. And how do we also use that to make sure our partners and our other supporters and volunteers are still engaged with us and realizing the value and benefits that they normally do through Skills Ontario.
Sam Demma (16:23):
Oh, that’s awesome. Really cool. There is a cool platform that was used recently with an event. I was a part of called hop in; might be worth checking out. They have like virtual booth. So a networking section where you meet one of’em with random people, there’s a main stage option, really cool stuff. And yeah, I’m sure you guys will probably build something in house and and build something really cool, but it might be worth, worth checking out. If anyone listening to this has been intrigued by any part of the conversation wants to connect with you, maybe ask some questions, bounce some ideas around, maybe they have some ideas for you. What would be the best way for another educator to reach out to you?
Ian Howcroft (17:00):
Well, I would refer everyone to our website. That has a lot of information about the programming that we’re doing. We have our Halloween spectacular skills experience based around some Halloween caution design pumpkin painting carving , a few other things around the Halloween theme. It’s all on our website as is all our other program information but that’s www.skillsontario.com. And I’m always encouraging people to reach out and contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact information is on our website, but what we do is engage young people, engage parents, engage educators, labor and business. So we’re trying to do as much of that as we can. So I love hearing from students particularly, but I love hearing from our other partners and anyone else, that’s looking for some information about skills, promotion skills opportunities, and how they can work with Skills Ontario.
Ian Howcroft (17:51):
I just wanna point out that we have 35 staff, as I said, but we could not do what we do without our volunteers. And volunteerism is so important. We probably have up to a thousand volunteers that help us deliver our, our programming, our competitions, our contests. Again, right now we’re restricted to the virtual reality, but we look forward to engaging our volunteers in a variety of ways as we move forward, virtually as well. But also when we get back to doing our, our carbo boat races and the contest and the qualifying competitions, and again, we’ve also been able to offer a few new programs. We couldn’t do the car boat races, which have to take place at a pool and teams design it, but we’ve moved to an airplane glider contest that you can do it into schools could even do it at home if you had to. So we have a competition based on that. So there’s a lot of exciting things that are coming forward from this tragic COVID experience that we have to deal with.
Sam Demma (18:40):
Ian. That’s awesome. And thank you so much for sharing. There’s a lot of great ideas and insight coming outta this podcast. I’m sure a ton of people will, will be reaching out. Thanks again, for taking time to have this conversation, it’s been a real pleasure having you on the show.
Ian Howcroft (18:53):
Thanks, I’ve really appreciated the opportunity, Sam. Hopefully our paths will continue to cross.
Sam Demma (18:57):
And there you have it. Another amazing guest, an amazing interview on the High Performing Educator podcast. As always, if you enjoy these episodes, please consider leaving a rating in review so other educators like your find this content and benefit from it. And here’s an exclusive opportunity that I mentioned at the start of the show. If you wanna meet the guest on today’s episode, if you wanna meet any of the guests that we have interviewed, consider going to www.highperformingeducator.com and signing up to join the exclusive network. You’ll have access to networking events throughout 2021 and other special opportunities. And I promise I will not fill your inbox. Talk to you soon. I’ll see you on the next episode.
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