What do high school, close relatives and the overwhelming pressure from society have in common? Their ignorance of the strength, satisfaction and success that comes from a career in the skilled trades.
Skills Canada and the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum conducted an Ipsos-Reid study in 2004, which found that “60% of youth reported that their parents have not encouraged them to consider a career in trades”; whether that is because their parents wanted them to be all-revered lawyers and doctors, or because skilled trades are socially associated with low caliber, high-stress jobs that earn very little and ask a lot is irrelevant.
These statistics are prevalent, even though news media is full to bursting with stories of unemployed university graduates, graduates unable to find jobs in their fields, or those that graduated into jobs they hate.
So why is university still the top choice when skilled trades — which can include construction, transportation, manufacturing, and service industries — are such lucrative careers with such an available variety of choice?
Because many Canadians are completely unaware of the benefits and opportunities that are available in skilled trades, and thus do not consider it in their decision-making.
“Skilled trade occupations are some of the best paid available and offer a lot of flexibility for young people.”
—Sarah Watts-Rynard, Executive Director, Canadian Apprenticeship Forum
Sarah Watts-Rynard, the Executive Director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, says that, “There’s a lot of misconceptions about skilled trades in our society, and good reasons for them. Over the years, every parent has always wanted his or her child to do better: have a better career and make more money and get ahead. But, in many cases, skilled trade occupations are some of the best paid available and offer a lot of flexibility for young people. If you go and get certified in a trade, you can move to any place in Canada or the world and have a job.”
A report done by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in 2003 revealed that, of the businesses surveyed, 50% said that lack of qualified labour was one of their biggest problems. 56% of businesses claimed that it was necessary to hire someone unqualified or under-qualified just to fill positions. Skilled trades are one of the most difficult industry jobs to fill, and yet they are integral to our society.
Alejandro Zambrano, a computer engineering student at Seneca and a graduate of George Brown’s electomechanical engineering technician program, agrees: ”If there were no skilled tradespeople, business people couldn’t do anything. If there were no skilled tradespeople, houses wouldn’t be built because you need builders, plumbers and electricians to build houses for realtors to sell, and for everyone else to live in.”
Sadly, that is the recurring trend in Canada – forgotten projects due to lack of labour availability. This is hurting our economy and hurting our youth.
Fortunately, the misconceptions about skilled trades are now outdated. There are more than 150 different registered skilled trades in Ontario alone, and many pay above (3.1%) the national Canadian average, not to mention have a lot of flexibility and room to grow.
Apprenticeships, which are common and often necessary in the skilled trades, allow students to get real-world experience and pay off their school debt while soaking in the knowledge of tradespeople that have been in the industry for decades.
But, Sarah cautions, “Apprenticeship takes 4 to 5 years, not a month, which is what has been happening because of the stress of the labour shortage. You want to capture the knowledge of people who are going to be retiring, who have worked in that sector and know all the ins-and-outs; you don’t want them to take it with them and not pass on to next generation.”
Alejandro decided to go into the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) industry while pursuing his computer engineering credentials, and has already found a ‘green’ refrigeration mentor in Quebec who is taking him on as an apprentice. “I’m going to be shadowing my boss and allowed to do little jobs to work my way up to his level of knowledge. Then, in a few years, they said that they would like me to spearhead a new branch in the GTA. I’m really excited because by then I’ll have a handle on all parts of the business. I feel like I was always meant to do something good with my skills, and this is it,” says Alejandro.
“What sets the skilled trades apart as a whole group is that it presents career choices that are very hands-on. Most of it is creative work because these tradespeople take raw materials and create great things from it, like a carpenter turning a block of wood into a chair, or a construction worker raising a building. We need these skills every day. These are careers where you see the product of your labour. They are for people who don’t want to sit in a cubicle wearing a tie every day,” says Sarah.
Alejandro nods, “There’s a lot of creativity in skills.” It’s not all heavy-lifting.
Canada will have nearly 1 million job openings from 2003-2015 in the skilled trades sector but continues to have a serious shortage of new, skilled tradespeople to fill in the retiring Baby Boomer gap. In the next 20 years, 40% of new jobs in Canada will be in skilled trades and technologies. This is great news for those people looking for jobs that aren’t typical, that are constantly evolving in new industries and that require constant development.
The question about skilled trades is no longer about whether you should, but whether many other educational and career choices continue to make sense in comparison. Our country and many other countries around the world are experiencing severe recessions, which means that our youth should be encouraged to be practical and smart about their futures.
What is the “fix” to Canada’s skilled trade labour shortage?
“There is no magic answer. There are lots of solutions, one of which includes understanding skilled tradespeople who want to immigrate to Canada by making sure their credentials match Canadian standards, or by providing gap training. Another important solution is by promoting apprenticeship to youth. Finally, engaging communities like Aboriginal peoples, who are already living in areas where skilled trades would thrive, like mining in Northern Ontario, is paramount,” Sarah says.
“We have to understand and utilize underrepresented populations. Our population is 50% women, but they only comprise 2% of the labour force in skilled trades. These are untapped pools of knowledge we should be encouraging to close the labour shortage gap.”
The labour market will look different 5 to 10 years from now than it did 5 or 10 years ago. This leads the advice of both an experienced businessperson and a young student to be the same: build a broad base of practical knowledge, and expect to never stop learning in a career in the skilled trades.