Tim Claydon worked as a Telecommunications Technician for a Nanaimo, BC communications company for 18 years. He enjoyed many things about his job, including the long scenic drives to remote mountain locations on Vancouver Island, where he would install antennas on towers, and install or service telecommunications equipment. Tim began to realize, however, that he was becoming less and less satisfied with his work. Part of the problem was a growing aversion to climbing 60-metre-tall antenna towers. "I did have a safety harness and a rail to attach myself to," he is quick to add. "But it does feel a little strange."
Tim isn't the only technician to discover that some occupations in the electronics and electricity industries require a good head for heights. Nor was he the first to realize that he was no longer able to work at the top of tall towers as easily as he could in his twenties.
Tim thought about changing his line of work for some time before finally taking a new job almost a year ago. He was motivated by the natural changes in interests and job preferences which may come with age and experience; but he's not unique in his desire to change occupations. Up to ten percent of workers across North America change their jobs every year, according to author Richard Nelson Bolles in his book What Color Is Your Parachute? 1999 : A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters & Career-Changers. Bolles goes on to say that we can count on having between three and six careers during our lifetimes.
Career changes may come about for a variety of reasons, including changes to a worker's abilities or family status, fluctuations in the economy of a particular region or industry, or exciting new opportunities which may suddenly present themselves. Though many technician and technologist occupations offer a high degree of job stability, they are also uniquely portable professions. Demand is high across Canada for skilled people in many of these occupations, and most technicians and technologists receive rigorous scientific training, which helps them develop skills that are valuable across many disciplines and industries.
Tim is a case in point. Though he began his career as a Telecommunications Technician, he made the switch to a related discipline with very little difficulty. As a Geophysical Instrument Technologist at the Pacific Geoscience Centre near Victoria, Tim now builds isolated sites for earthquake study. He contracts out the work of pouring concrete, installing antenna towers and basic telecommunications equipment for local companies -- sometimes even his former employer! Tim installs the delicate equipment himself: seismometers that measure earthquake vibrations in the ground, and data digitizers which convert the measurements to a signal that can be sent by radio.
"The pressure to get a site repaired immediately isn't as strong at the Pacific Geosciences Centre as the pressure to get a communications antenna repaired for the telecommunications industry," Tim explains.
As a Geophysical Instrument Technologist, Tim still uses many of the same field skills that he needed as a Telecommunications Technician. His work in the winter, however, now concentrates on the circuit design and prototype development of data digitizers, as well as data analysis. He enjoys these much more than tower climbing, although that's still a part of his job. Since the modern antenna towers he works with now are only 20 feet tall, even that aspect of his work has improved.
"My work experience and familiarity with the area are definite assets in the work I do now for the Pacific Geosciences Centre," Tim said confidently. "I'm familiar with the mountains we consider for possible sites, and with the companies we can hire to pour concrete or fly us in with helicopters." As a site is being constructed, he is also able to direct the work in an effective way, and can tell whether the work has been done properly. Years of working in the field with various brands and models of electronic components have taught him the idiosyncrasies of equipment failure, and how to design a dependable device. All this makes him an efficient Geophysical Instrument Technologist, instead of an uneasy Telecommunications Technician at the top of a swaying 60-metre-tall antenna tower.
What's it like to be out in the field taking surveys, or testing samples in a laboratory? How does it feel to process data or work with complicated machinery? Students don't have to wait until graduation to answer these questions. Many Canadian colleges are now offering Co-operative programs that allow students who qualify the opportunity to collect a regular paycheque while still learning.
Co-op programs are an innovative, extremely popular method of combining study with real on-the-job experience. In a way, these programs are a modern reinvention of the ancient practice of apprenticeship, combined with the advantages of a contemporary education. Many of the colleges and CEGEPs that offer technology programs have long-standing partnerships with employers in their areas and so are able to offer their students the advantage of practical experience in a real work environment. In addition to two years of regular classroom study, a typical co-op program offers at least two terms of on-the-job experience, lasting four to six months each. Co-op terms count as real, salaried, full-time work as a trainee in the student's chosen field.
The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) offers many co-op programs including Computer Systems Technology and Civil Engineering Technology, both of which extend the regular four semesters of study by three six-month work terms. The programs are incredibly popular and there are usually more applicants than there are spaces available. "We'd like to have them all in the co-op program if we could, but the funding isn't there," says Terry Bajer, the coordinator of Civil Engineering Technology Co-op program at NAIT.
The Palliser Campus of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) in Moose Jaw offers co-op options in a wide range of areas. In fact, students in Palliser's 10-program Technology division are obliged to complete the co-op program with a minimum of two four-month work terms. Not only do graduates from co-op programs have the benefit of work experience, but many are often able to turn their placements into full-time positions after graduation.
If co-op study interests you, it's very important to research your options before choosing a college or CEGEP. Some co-op programs admit only honours students; others insist on higher than average grades to be admitted. Non-educational issues are also important. For example, a driver's license is often necessary for most work experience.
Palliser's co-op program was modelled on a similar program in place at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. "Our students are the best ambassadors for our program," says Peter Lapointe, Palliser's Coordinator of Co-op Programs. "We do the job development, and monitor visits to each student during the work term. Job site visits also encourage employers to continue hiring our students and our graduates. We believe co-op education is a three-way working relationship with student, school, and employer. It benefits all three."
Fuel cells might just change the world. Imagine an energy source that uses widely available materials to produce heat and electricity - with absolutely no pollution. Sound too good to be true? Well, it's not. But while the technology (which has been around for 150 years) is promising, getting it to market on a mass scale is going to provide a lot of work for technicians and technologists in the coming years.
Fuel cells work, but most are not yet commercially viable because they are too large and heavy, and cost too much.
For decades, environmentalists - and many drivers - have longed for cleaner ways to drive. Carmakers began responding in the 1970s with compact cars to replace the gas-guzzlers of old. But even the most fuel-efficient car still pumps out its share of pollutants and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Many scientists believe these gases are causing a gradual rise in the earth's temperature, which may have disastrous environmental consequences. And the rise of the mini-van and sport-utility vehicle has meant that an increasing number of noxious compounds are being pumped into our atmosphere.
At the same time, electrical utilities dependent on coal, oil, and nuclear power are desperate for cleaner sources of electricity. And that's where fuel cells come in.
The first generation of fuel cell-powered cars could be in limited production as early as 2004, according to DaimlerChrysler. The German-American auto manufacturer made headlines in the spring of 1998 when it unveiled its NECAR 4 prototype at a glitzy Washington, DC ceremony.
The car, powered by PEM fuel cells developed by Canada's Ballard Power Systems, has a range of 450 kilometres, and can accelerate up to 145 kilometres per hour. These are vast improvements over previous models. But there are still some obstacles. The company says the engine in a mass-produced fuel cell vehicle would cost about $30,000 US. A standard internal combustion engine costs about one-tenth that amount.
Making fuel cells economical clearly has the potential to completely change our society, and Bill Logan - an Instrumentation and Test Technologist working on fuel cells finds it very exciting to be working on the cutting edge. "It is my ideal job," he says enthusiastically. "When I was halfway through school, I knew I wanted to get into R & D. I love being out in the lab, I love testing and I get a real thrill out of the new products. There's a bit of an adrenaline high."
According to Fuel Cells 2000, an organization that promotes the development and commercialization of the technology, there are over 600 fuel cell related companies and organizations in the world. Opportunities for technicians and technologists are likely to be plentiful in the highly competitive fuel cell field for years to come. There are many players rushing to be the first to market with the power-generation technology of the future.
In particular, expect a lot of opportunities in research and development, as companies scramble to bring their costs down. "You want to implement a certain material, but until you actually test it, you don't know," Bill Logan explains.
Fuel cell companies are, naturally, protective of their technology. So don't expect to read up on all of the details before starting work. Besides, the technology is changing so rapidly. Because of this, flexibility and a willingness to learn on the job are crucial.
Types of Fuel Cells
There are a number of different types of fuel cells. Here is a quick guide to some of them:
Alkaline fuel cells provided electricity and water to the Apollo moon missions and the space shuttle. Their costs are extremely high, in part because they require very pure hydrogen.
Phosphoric Acid fuel cells show great promise for stationary power generation. In fact over 100 units have been installed in hospitals, office buildings, and schools worldwide.
Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cells have tremendous potential for use in zero-emission vehicles because they operate at relatively low temperatures and can start up quickly.
Solid Oxide fuel cells are likely to find use in large-scale industrial and electricity generating facilities because they generate so much heat.
Drop into any military recruiting office, and you're likely to be astounded by the number of opportunities available to technicians and technologists.
The military needs people to do all kinds of jobs - everything from testing, maintaining and repairing aviation systems, to working in land, maritime and aerospace communications, to installing and modifying precise fire-control systems. And in exchange for a minimum of five years service, it pays for a first-rate education. More, as the old recruiting ads used to say, because it's not just a job, it's an adventure. Being a member of the Canadian Forces isn't like being an employee for a private company. The work is sometimes difficult and transfers are frequent, but the rewards are tangible. You might even find yourself serving with peacekeeping and peacemaking missions in danger spots all over the world.
A military career offers a clear sense of duty, mission and purpose, and the bonds that develop between serving members of the Forces often last a lifetime. Military technician and technologist careers specifically offer good opportunities for variety and advancement. Some technicians work in heated, well-lighted workshops or in offices, while others must perform under challenging, near-battlefield conditions. "Work is frequently performed under adverse environmental conditions such as extreme heat, cold, noxious odours, noise, wetness, or dust and dirt," reads a Canadian Forces pamphlet. It's clearly not a career choice for everybody.
And competition for tech jobs in the military is getting stiffer. When Chief Warrant Officer Barry Maddin, a Vehicle Technician, enlisted back in the 70s, a Grade 8 education was sufficient. No more. "Today the market is very steep," he says. "Now you need Grade 12, and some people even join with university degrees." In fact, it's necessary to have higher math and sciences as well.
Tech workers pass through a number of qualification levels, or QLs, as their career progresses. Once basic training is completed, technicians undergo basic military occupation (MOC) training at one of several Canadian Forces schools. At this point, they are classed QL3. A period of on-the-job training (QL4) is followed by QL5, which marks the end of apprenticeship and full entry into the trade. The two highest levels are QL6 (supervisory) and QL7 (managerial).
Throughout their careers, military technicians and technologists continue to receive training in new areas. And those classed Specialist 1 and Specialist 2 receive a larger paycheque.
Each member of the military has a career manager, or CM. "We call them career manglers sometimes," jokes Maddin. The CMs work hard to make sure soldiers maintain a well-rounded career. In consultation with the CM, soldiers can put in requests for particular postings. But, of course, no assignment is guaranteed - and things can change quickly.
Those changes, and the uncertainty they bring, are the most challenging part of the job for Corporal Marc Charbonneau, a Strategic Information Systems Technician.
"Duty comes before everything else. Sometimes that's cool, and sometimes it's not," he says. "I think the good things compensate for the bad," he adds.
The past few years have seen considerable downsizing in the military, and many technicians and technologists are feeling the pinch. They are called to take on more responsibilities. While working under stress is not for everybody, some thrive on it. "It's very challenging," says Sergeant Joe Rato, a Fire Control Systems Technician and instructor at the Canadian Forces School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering. "But I like that. I like being able to work under tough conditions and still be able to perform." The armed forces have been working hard in the past few years to make sure that accreditation standards for technicians and technologists are equivalent to those in place in the civilian world. This will ensure that personnel can easily make the transition from life in the forces to civilian streets.