Skills Shortage Is a Relative Term

Skills | BCBusiness
Fiona Macfarlane: “The old way of fixing women, of turning them into white males, is not feasible.”

Major employers tell a Vancouver conference that finding skilled tradespeople is difficult but not impossible; the real challenge, they say is finding and retaining experienced workers and senior supervisors

If there’s a skills shortage in B.C., it is not spread evenly across all sectors. That’s the message delivered by top executives from diverse industries at a Vancouver conference on April 24.
A panel of employers at the Putting B.C. to Work conference held at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel told widely diverging stories of challenges they face in attracting and retaining workers.
David Podmore, CEO of Concert Properties told attendees how his company has had to walk away from attractive construction projects in Alberta and northern B.C., not only because of a shortage of qualified construction workers, but because they couldn’t find qualified supervisory personnel. Speaking of one project in Alberta, he said his company wasn’t alone: “There were five other major development companies that looked at the opportunity and all passed. They could not satisfy themselves they could provide the supervision and oversight required.”
Fiona Macfarlane, managing partner of the B.C. office of EY Canada tells a starkly different story: professional services careers are in such demand that a recent call to fill 25 apprenticeship openings in EY’s accounting practice attracted 1,300 applications.
The problem her profession faces, Macfarlane says is not attracting but retaining talent: accountants and other professionals are in such high demand globally that as soon as young recruits get some experience, they’re often lured to other jurisdictions. Her firm’s response has been to focus on career development, and to direct recruitment efforts at typically under-employed demographics, including women, minorities and immigrants.
James Gorman, CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, described challenges unique to forestry: an ageing workforce in a cyclical industry. During low points in the industry cycle, such as the recent U.S. housing crisis and the pine beetle infestation, workers tend to leave the industry, then when the industry begins ramping up again, as it is now, it’s hard to lure them back. Gorman pointed to industry forecasts of 26 per cent growth in demand for certain priority occupations in forestry, with supply expected to increase only eight per cent. “We’re feeling those supply/demand gaps now,” he said.
The shipbuilding industry is relatively protected from the skills shortages affecting other trades, said Brian Carter, president of Seaspan Shipyards. Because Seaspan’s North Vancouver and Victoria shipyards offer long-term employment and high wages without the remote work camps traditionally associated with trades in B.C., they have already managed to grow the Victoria skilled trades workforce from 300 to 1,200 in five years. Seaspan expects to grow its North Vancouver trades workforce from 200 today to 1,000 by early 2017.
The challenge, said Carter, is finding senior management. “It’s not easy to hang out your shingle and say we’re hiring experienced shipbuilders in Vancouver, because we don’t have a history of shipbuilding,” he noted. Seaspan has nevertheless succeeded in attracting 75 management personnel, relying heavily on the Provincial Nominee Program, a provincial/federal partnership aimed at attracting qualified foreign workers by offering permanent resident status.
One significant challenge facing most trades employers is diversity and equality. Gorman pointed to considerable improvements in representation of women and First Nations in forestry, but noted that aboriginal workers are still less likely to be represented in management jobs.
Macfarlane described the considerable accomplishments that EY has made in recent decades by attracting women and minorities to the firm, but said corporate Canada has a long way to go.
“When you look at our stats on inclusion, a country that is regarded as one of the best environments for women to thrive in the world—safety, education, health care—we’re actually falling behind Australia and the U.K. in our inclusion. So this is something we have to pay a lot of attention to.”
Old attitudes have to change, Macfarlane said: “The old way of fixing women, of turning them into white males, is not feasible. What you have to do is what I call desalinate the culture: you have to change the culture so that everybody is included and ultimately you will get higher engagement and better results from all your people.”