Jake Boekestyn learned at an early age that there is always something to repair at the family’s St. Davids farm and greenhouse.
He was also fascinated watching his grandfather frequently use welding equipment to do some of the work around the small engine shop he owned in the Barrie area.
So, when at about 13 years old he unearthed an old welding rig at the family’s Trend Aquafresh greenhouse on Line 8, he was over the moon with excitement. He got to work teaching himself how to weld, and never looked back.
“I was in Grade 9,” he remembers. “I just started picking up scrap pieces of metal we had laying around the greenhouse and practising how to weld them. I would make things out of nuts and bolts, and just tried to figure out how to do it. It was awesome.”
Boekestyn loved the technology classes he took at Smithville Christian High School, especially the Grade 10 course where welding was the focus. In Grade 11 he was able to arrange a co-op placement with Beamsville artist Floyd Elzinga, whose 3-D metal sculptures are on display at Rockcliffe Park Village Green in Ottawa, and on the Canadian side of the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge.
Now a graduate of Niagara College’s two-year welding technician program, Boekestyn is the gold medal winner in the post-secondary welding division at the 2022 Skills Ontario Competition. This week he flies out to Vancouver with his professor, Vic Barker, to compete at the Skills Canada nationals, vying for a spot at the WorldSkills 2022 Competition this October in Shanghai, China.
In January, Niagara College welding program coordinator Brendan Ryan and professor Vic Barker took Boekestyn and classmate Ian Mehlenbacher aside to invite them to compete at Skills Ontario. In his final semester of his studies at the time, Boekestyn began weekly Saturday sessions to practise and prepare for the May event.
“Vic was a huge help,” Boekestyn says. “He was there every single day, teaching me, prepping plates, going over blueprints and getting all the details down so I knew what to do. He took care of getting me all of the important information.”
Boekestyn says the program at the college has helped him hone his blueprint skills and increase his knowledge of the lexicon of welding. It’s also given him exposure to more types of welding than he was able to learn in high school. Both were important factors in his gold medal accomplishment.
For Barker, who retired as a welding teacher from Port Colborne High School, Jake was an obvious choice for the competition.
“It wasn’t just me,” Barker tells The Local, “it was other professors as well. Jake came with natural talents. When I watched him do his welds, he was always eager, he was always motivated. We needed someone who was going to dedicate himself to practising. He had perfect attendance and was dedicated to the program.”
Skills Ontario is held every year, bringing together post-secondary and high school students as well as apprentices to demonstrate their skills in more than 70 different areas. Besides welding, other categories include coding, brick masonry, photography, steam fitting and robotics.
Thousands of competitors and their teachers, coaches and parents converge on the Toronto Congress Centre annually to receive their tasks and instructions from officials. Each category is judged by experts in that particular field. Gold medalists such as Boekestyn have the chance to move on to the national competition.
Due to continued pandemic restrictions, Skills Ontario held the competition virtually for 2022. Local officials, such as Barker and Ryan, were given instructions and materials to pass along to each competitor. On the day of competition, participants are overseen by their instructors as well as a Skills Ontario official, watching remotely via Microsoft Teams.
“The excitement wasn’t there,” laments Barker, who is a veteran of Skills Ontario competitions from his DSBN days. “If we had had the opportunity to go to Toronto, there’s 30,000 to 40,000 people that go through that place every day. But doing the project was much the same.”
“There were three tasks we had to do,” explains the 21-year-old Boekestyn. “The plates were all pre-cut. I had to fit them together properly and read off of the blueprints for positioning and type of welds.”
Barker explains that earlier this year the decision was made that the Skills Ontario winner in welding would compete for a spot at the world trials in Shanghai. If Jake wins in Vancouver he won’t take home another medal, but instead will book his ticket to China.
Like Barker, his high school co-op supervisor Elzinga also recognized Jake’s natural affinity for the trade.
“He’s always got creative ideas for projects,” Elzinga says. “He has a voracious appetite for doing new things. He comes back to me periodically to do certain jobs for me. We are currently trying to put together a remote job to work on.”
Elzinga adds that Boekestyn possesses an incredible wealth of knowledge. He was able to put Jake to work texturizing steel to make bark for trees and pressing scales for his environmental-themed creations. While at Elzinga’s studio Boekestyn applied both MIG- and TIG-welding skills as well as plasma-cutting. He also polished, ground and sanded steel, and even tapped and threaded a few things.
That desire to do new things led to Jake taking a job with St. Catharines-based stairs and railing company Next Step Niagara after graduating from high school. There, he immersed himself in learning woodworking during a gap year working for the high-end builder.
Today, he has created a side gig of sorts doing custom metal work for Next Step. Any time they need metal handrails or posts, they turn to Boekestyn for fabrication. They provide him with the blueprints and he gets to work at home, bringing ideas to reality. He also takes on smaller welding jobs for anyone who needs them.
Post-graduation, Boekestyn hopes to attain a job that will allow him to complete his final year of his apprenticeship, enabling him to earn his interprovincial red-seal welding certification. He would one day like to own his own company, taking on bigger jobs.
But for now, the son of Ton and Jackie is busy concentrating on the competition.
He’ll be competing for three days in Vancouver this week, and he’ll find out Saturday at the awards presentation, which will be live-streamed, whether or not he’ll be flying off to China in October.
“There’s a little bit of nerves,” Boekestyn admits. “I’m very hopeful and excited to see if I get to go to China, but I’m mainly just excited for the experience. It’s going to be awesome out there.”