KITCHENER - At least one parent always asks Dennis Harlock to hold up his hands and wiggle his fingers during campus tours at Conestoga College each year.

"After 30 years there's never been a lost-digit accident," he boasts.

Harlock is a faculty member at the Woodworking Centre of Ontario on the college's Doon campus in the south end of Kitchener, where student safety is a big concern for parents - and the centre's top priority.

"Accidents do happen and machines do get damaged, but we don't blame the individual," he said. "We always turn it into a learning experience." And there are very few places in the country better equipped than Conestoga College to teach future woodworkers the skills they need.

At approximately 52,000 square feet, the woodworking centre feels more like an industrial manufacturing warehouse than a classroom.

It's the largest woodworking training facility in North America, as well as one of the most-advanced. This year, marks the centre's 30th anniversary.

Some 40,000 square feet is dedicated shop space for approximately 200 students each term as they practise their skills and prepare to enter the workforce.

The school offers a two-year woodworking technician program, a three-year co-op woodworking technology program, and a cabinetmaker apprenticeship program.

The centre's reputation attracted Ryan Korczak to the college. The 39-year-old is in his second year of the two-year program. He worked on the assembly line at Toyota for 16 years before deciding it was time for a change.

He was drawn to woodworking when he started refinishing antique furniture in his spare time, and the craftsmanship and care that went into designing and building the furniture struck a chord.

"This place is a hidden gem," said the Hamilton resident, who never imagined such an advanced facility would be so close to home.

He figured he would have to go to the United States to get the kind of education he's receiving at Conestoga.

"Once I saw it was here I applied the very next day. It was almost too good to be true." Korczak, who also has an English degree from Western University in London, wants to become a master cabinetmaker.

He's a recipient of the Weston Family scholarship in the skilled trades, which provides a maximum of $4,000 ($1,000 per semester for up to four semesters) to students.

He also works part-time at the college as a woodworking technician assistant to help with projects around campus.

About 30 per cent of the students in the program are mature students, said Harlock, who graduated from Conestoga's woodworking program in 1982 and has been a faculty member since the centre opened in 1988.

The former woodworking shop, now the college bookstore, only had 4,000 square feet of space, which meant the college could accept only about 30 students into the program each year.

Classes ran from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to ensure everyone had enough time in the shop.

When the new centre opened 30 years ago, enrolment more than tripled to 108. The college now accepts about 90 new first-year students every year.

Conestoga's program offers a blend of old-fashioned woodworking skills mixed with ultra-modern technology.

Students spend part of their first semester learning to use hand tools to help them understand the theory behind basic joinery and other woodworking techniques, before advancing to modern power tools and computer-controlled machines.

That includes approximately four jointers, four planers and eight table saws on the shop floor, along with an edge bander, several CNC machines, and a computer-assisted saw. Overhead, two 150 horsepower dust collectors keep the air free of dust.

There's a virtual reality computer system that trains students how to use a spray gun and properly apply finish before they ever step foot inside a real spray booth.

"That way they can get the learning curve done and out of the way," said David Blackler, finishing technologist at the college.

The first generation of the computer program, introduced about seven years ago, allowed students to simulate spraying flat pieces of wood on a large computer screen.

The recently installed second generation of the program fully immerses students using a set of virtual reality goggles, allowing them to practise spraying in all three dimensions.

The system measures distance from the object, spray speed, the angle of the spray gun in the student's hand, and even how much the application cost in dollars and cents.

"It's just awesome," said Blackler. "Now when students go into the finishing booths for the first time, there are no surprises." Mark Bramer, a student at Conestoga from 1979 to 1981 and a faculty member since 1988, said there is still enormous demand for woodworkers across the country.

The centre's expansion to become the largest woodworking centre on the continent was driven by industry demand for well-trained employees.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, labour supply is a major concern. About 84 per cent of major employers in the wood product manufacturing sector reported an inadequate supply of skilled workers, while 76 per cent said they had difficulty attracting applicants.

The woodworking sector currently employs about 88,000 workers in Canada and expects to add another 7,900 jobs by 2020 - with the strongest gains in Ontario (about 3,300 jobs).

Conestoga grads typically move into four main industries - 25 per cent become cabinetmakers; 25 per cent work in architectural millwork (making staircases or hardwood floors, for example); 25 per cent build furniture; and 25 per cent go into specialty fields, such as building acoustic guitars or custom wooden boats.

"The future is bright for our trade," Bramer said.

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