The Problem of Too Many Skilled-Trades Jobs

Lena Bird, Amelia Milner, Sabrina Dunford | BCBusiness
Lena Bird (left), Amelia Milner and Sabrina Dunford areGrade10 students looking for careers in trades typically dominated by men.

Over the next decade, tens of thousands of skilled-trades jobs will go unfilled. When they do, and the economy starts grinding slower, educators, government, industry and labour will have to answer for their negligence. But it doesn’t have to be this way

On a Thursday morning in June, three giggling Grade 10 girls from Salt Spring Island’s Gulf Islands Secondary don oversized helmets and thick elbow-length gloves in a booth on the B.C. Place floor as they wait their turn to take a crack at welding. Sabrina, Amelia and Lena are among the 7,000 provincial students taking part in the interactive Try-a-Trade program that accompanies the annual Skills Canada National Competition, where the most talented young tradespeople from each province compete in more than 40 skills contests, from carpentry to robotics. Sabrina and Amelia both say they’re interested in becoming welders when they graduate, while Lena leans toward carpentry. Amelia, whose welder dad got her started early by enlisting her help with his drag racer, says, “It’s kind of fun to do something that you wouldn’t expect a girl to do.”

Shaun Thorson, CEO of Skills / Compétences Canada, the non-profit that organizes the competition, wants to change the perception of careers in the trades among young people.

“What we’re trying to do is give students at least some balance in the discussion about what careers are available to them,” he says. “University is great for some students, but it’s not great for all students.”

Skills / Compétences Canada, partially funded by industry partners, is particularly focused on exposing high-schoolers to the trades that are expected to be in high demand in the future. Demand for welders, for instance, is expected to rise steadily, with approximately 800 new job openings in 2015 alone. While Thorson would consider the interest Sabrina and Amelia have shown a success (especially considering that currently only two per cent of B.C.’s welders are female), it will be 2021 before they’ll have finished high school and apprenticeships, and alarms are now being sounded that B.C.’s supply of skilled labour will reach a crisis point well before then.

In January, The Research Universities’ Council of B.C. (RUCBC), which represents B.C.’s six major universities, released a report based on the provincial government’s research titled “B.C. Labour Market Profile” that forecasts the province suffering from a steadily worsening skills deficit, with demand expected to outstrip supply beginning in 2016 and 18,800 jobs requiring a post-secondary education lacking qualified workers by 2020. The purpose of the report was to support the RUCBC’s proposal that 11,000 new post-secondary positions be funded by the province (4,400 for colleges and trades, 3,600 for undergraduates and 3,000 for graduate students) at a cost to the taxpayer of $130 million over four years. The emphasis on trades is consistent with commitments made by Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Minister and Minister Responsible for Labour Shirley Bond, who, shortly after taking over her new portfolio in June, said she intends “to increase the number of graduates who come straight out of high school into a trades or technical program by 50 per cent.”

The urgency of the skills deficit is perceived to be most acute in industries that rely on tradespeople because there is evidence that the economic consequences are severe when those positions go unfilled. These industries account for more than 50 per cent of Canada’s GDP, and a 2009 Statistics Canada survey of employers found that skilled trades positions were the hardest to fill.

Then there are the war stories. Gary Sutton is general manager of R.A.S. Industries Ltd., a medium-sized Surrey-based company that manufactures components for the large conveyor belts used in mining operations.

His company employs machinists, millwrights and welders—and Sutton says millwrights have been the hardest to recruit, largely due to demand in Alberta’s oil sands. He spent all of last year trying to hire an experienced millwright, with no success. “There was much more [business] available for us out there in the marketplace if we’d wanted to go after it, but we just held back because we couldn’t produce any more,” Sutton says.

Kevin Evans, CEO of Industry Training Authority, the government agency that supports and promotes apprenticeships in B.C., has a question for Sutton: “Were you training apprentices 15 years ago, and if you were, would you be in the position you’re in now?” He says he understands that businesses are in a bind, but that the roots of the problem run deep—and so must the solutions. Evans argues that government and industry need to collaborate to engender a “culture of training.” Employers complain about the dearth of qualified workers, but many haven’t been training them. Every apprentice needs a job and industry hasn’t been holding up its end of the bargain. B.C. has about 9,500 registered sponsors with spots for apprentices, which is 1,000 fewer than before the start of the 2008 recession. According to Evans, “recessions are always unkind to the apprenticeship system because apprentices are often the first to be laid off.”

Educators, government, industry and labour will all have to put shoulders to the same wheel if the crisis is to be averted by turning more high-school students into apprentice tradespeople and more apprentices into journeymen. But not everyone agrees about the nature of the problem. Educators are seeking more support for training from government; the government training authority says there are enough trainees, but industry needs to sponsor more apprenticeships; and industry (as is its habit) points the finger at labour.

Mercer International Inc. CFO David Gandossi, for instance, describes his frustration in his company’s pulp and paper mills, where seniority rules get in the way of hiring apprentices. “You’re facing a $250,000 cost to train a 50-year-old guy, when you really want to be training some of the younger people, but the union structure doesn’t allow that often. So then you’re thinking maybe someone else has got someone I can recruit or steal. It’s an awkward scenario.”

Every stakeholder agrees that the looming skills deficit, a perfect storm of bad demographics and rapid growth in industries that rely on skilled labour, is a serious threat to B.C.’s economy. Investments are being made to get Sabrina, Amelia, Lena and their 6,793 peers excited about becoming tradespeople, getting trained and ultimately filling the positions where they’re needed. But the increasingly obvious truth is that these enthusiastic young people won’t solve the problem. At least not yet. In all likelihood, it will be solved the same way it has every other time there has been work to be done in this province for a century and a half: immigration, both international and inter-provincial.

There are only two ways to add new skilled tradespeople to a labour market: train them or import them. Training them has the advantage of lowering the unemployment rate, which is still lingering above historical averages, but the disadvantage is being slow and requiring the co-operation of educators, government, industry and labour. Minister Bond insists that ongoing efforts to match training programs with industry demand are the way forward. For now, though, Gary Sutton has hired an experienced millwright from China.