Overcoming Canada’s skilled-tradesperson shortage

2014-02-24 09:48

When it comes to the question of whether Canada is developing enough skilled tradespeople, the perspectives are more diverse than one might imagine. In conversations across the country, I hear a variety of explanations for why there are not enough.

Employers aren’t doing their part by hiring apprentices. Labour agreements are prohibitive. It’s hard to free up time away from the job site for technical training. Youth are uninterested in the trades. Journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios are unreasonable.

In reality, these reasons are among many others that help explain the short supply of tradespeople.

I am lucky to have opportunities to talk to tradespeople, apprentices and apprenticeship champions across this country. People who manage, train, support and mentor apprentices are a dedicated and passionate group, generally willing to discuss challenges frankly — and always interested in hearing how others are addressing similar issues.

One of the things I’ve learned from these discussions is that barriers to apprenticeship training are complex and multi-layered. If there were a simple, straightforward policy solution, it would have been implemented.

Among the challenges:

Perceptions of career influencers: While a recent survey of young people indicated they are open to a career in the trades, they reported that parents, teachers and friends have a poor image of trades, and don’t encourage them to pursue this pathway.

Lack of opportunity: One of the biggest complaints we hear from prospective apprentices is that employers aren’t interested in hiring young people without experience.

Unwelcoming workplace/training environments: Women, indigenous people and others under-represented in the trades still report feeling unwelcome and marginalized. Until we’re ready to examine the extent to which this is a problem in each workplace and classroom, the pool of prospective employees will remain a shallow one.

Cost of apprenticeship: While employers who train apprentices consider it a good investment, many others believe the costs outweigh the benefits. In fact, research shows an average return of $1.47 for every dollar spent.

Apprenticeship completion: Though apprenticeship registrations have increased in the past 10 years, only about 50 per cent manage to ultimately obtain their certificate of qualification. To some extent, this reflects people deciding the path isn’t a good fit, something we also see with university and college students. Apprentices, however, also face the unique requirement to find and maintain employment. When contracts come to an end, or the economy turns, apprentice training can quickly be derailed.

Lack of apprenticeship harmonization: Canada has 13 apprenticeship systems. When an apprentice loses his or her job in one part of the country, it can be difficult to transfer employment hours and levels of training to another region where there is higher demand. Current efforts to harmonize apprenticeship training across the country are proving to be a huge step in the right direction.

Required academic skills: Students who don’t excel in academic classrooms are often encouraged to pursue the trades. However, many trades require advanced math, science, digital and problem-solving skills. High schools must therefore do more to engage hands-on learners in the practical aspects of these subjects, to ensure they have a foundation for apprenticeship success.

The reality is that there are excellent initiatives underway all across Canada to address these barriers and many others. Employers, labour groups, educators and other organizations are creating new and innovative solutions. These groups are open and ready to share solutions with others. But since education is a provincial jurisdiction, this means often reinventing programs by sector and region. Funding often stops at provincial borders — or is stopped altogether when philosophies or governments change.

We aren’t lacking for good ideas and there’s no evidence suggesting there is a perfect system in any other country for Canada to emulate. Rather, as the skills shortage becomes more intense, there is a real opportunity to apply best practices and overcome barriers on a more consistent, national basis.

What’s called for is a made-in-Canada solution to barriers that are uniquely ours.

Sarah Watts-Rynard is executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, a non-profit organization based in Ottawa that promotes innovation in apprenticeship programs to help address the shortage of skilled-trade labour in Canada.

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on January 29th 2014.