Tackling the shortage of skilled workers includes the ‘promotion of trades as honourable, rewarding and viable career options’

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By John Devine

Special to Ontario Construction News

The Province is on a tour of colleges, dropping off cheques for skills training and talking up the benefits of pursuing a career in the trades. According to industry experts the campaign is a timely one as the construction industry is staring at a yawning gap between jobs and skilled workers to fill them.

A recent report from BuiltForce Canada says that Ontario is facing a looming shortage of skilled workers, 100,000 of them over the coming years. The lack of skilled workers to fill available jobs will have serious implications for the construction industry and the provincial economy as a whole, say industry experts and insiders.

We asked one industry insider, Wade Gayowsky, executive vice president of Waterloo-based Stonerise Construction, to comment on a range of issues relating to the skills gap.

“In addition to the implications that the industry is facing as a result of the skilled trade shortage, Ontario’s economic development has and will continue to be subjected to rapid transformation and potential issues. In my opinion, the effects felt could include the increasing cost of goods … a decrease in economic productivity, and the limiting of business growth and investment.”

The shortage of skilled workers is already impacting companies, including Stonerise says Gayowsky.

“The lack of skilled workers impacts many of the trades that we work closely with, which directly affects our schedules. With an absence of labour in many manufacturing plants, production slows and results in significant delays. One of our projects in particular is currently struggling with this shortfall and as a result, is only running at 60 per cent capacity.

“I think I can speak on behalf of many other companies across the region when I say that the skilled labour shortage is directly impacting company growth, the ability to take on new jobs, capacity to competitively bid on projects, the quality of labour and project costs.”

Other areas of concern include project costs as a lack of skilled workers may drive up prices as competition for their services increases.

“These trades tend to work closely with the firms who will pay the most and/or whom they have a trusting relationship with. This is one of the biggest examples of how the struggling labour market is directly impacting and driving up consumer costs. The ripple effect is much more exaggerated when it is realized that building costs will therefore translate into increased costs for consumers.”

Recruitment and retention in the industry is becoming increasingly challenging, continues Gayowsky, as many current potential candidates lack the required skills and experience to pursue careers in the trades.

“There have been a range of issues regarding recruitment and retention that have come to the forefront in recent years, one being a misalignment between what is happening in institutions versus what is happening in the field. While the college job is to provide this information and some of the initial training, employers are wanting fully experienced workers, and it has become increasingly difficult for apprentices to find opportunities to be trained.”

He says it is more important than ever that the Province be part of the solution to the lack of qualified, skilled workers. Funding and training initiatives will help bridge the skills gap, preparing future generations for good jobs and viable careers in the trades.

“It will help companies recruit talent and open many doors for those who have genuine interest in pursuing a future in these fields.”

Of course, this type of training will only benefit those who want a career in the trades, says Gayowsky, adding “we also need to address the obvious reality that there is a lack of interest among the current and future generations when it comes to working as a tradesperson. In my opinion, all industry stakeholders need to work together to shine a spotlight on the benefits and rewards associated with entering the trades.”

Reasons for the shortage of skilled workers are many, including a societal reluctance to see trades as a viable career. Others include a lack of women, visible minorities, and immigrants, and the age of many current tradespeople who will soon be entering their retirement years

“There are currently several factors that I believe are contributing to the shortage of skilled workers in Ontario and across the country. For years, we’ve seen continued pressure placed on younger generations to pursue careers in the technology, education and medical industries. The construction industry and its associated trades are rarely considered as viable career options, when in fact, many skilled workers make significantly more money than these other fields,” says Gayowsky.

“The reality of the situation is that skilled tradespeople are retiring faster than we can replace them, while barriers continue to exist for women and minorities in the industry … our demographics are working against us. And as the construction boom strengthens and Canada’s aging infrastructure requires increasing attention, the existing skills shortages in our industry will become more and more acute.”

There remains much more to be done to entice women, minorities, and immigrants to consider a career in the trades, he continues.

“A focus on recruitment of these underrepresented groups will be a starting point. There is a lot of opportunity for employers and policymakers to promote skilled trades careers and reduce barriers to training for women, visible minorities and immigrants alike. In my opinion, if the talent pool is already limited like we are currently experiencing in the skilled trades, alienating a segment of the population will only intensify the situation.”

A strategy to get beyond a societal stigma against the trades needs to start in schools and households “where the most influential conversations surrounding the future of younger people are taking place.”

This stigma, says Gayowsky, is contributing to the larger and immediate concern: the shortage of skilled workers.

“There is a perceived bias against jobs that are seen as physically challenging or involve working with one’s hands that still exists in the public realm. And this proves that there is a lack of knowledge about what construction work truly entails.”

Efforts by government and the industry to entice more people into the trades encounter the prevailing lack of interest among younger generations to enter the workforce in the first place, making the recruitment job all the harder, he explains, adding the situation is worsened by the fact young people who are interested in pursuing a career in the trades face significant barriers to entry.

“As employers, we must recognize that apprentices are a crucial talent pool. Streamlining and improving skills training is crucial, however I think more can be done to improve the current system and eliminate the red tape that still exists. Making the apprenticeship system easier to access and navigate is something that both industry leaders and the provincial government can do to improve skilled trades training across the province. An apprenticeship system for the new economy is fundamental to better serve apprentices and people who work in the skilled trades.”

An ideal apprenticeship system would see trainees split their days between classroom instruction and on-the-job training.

“The theory that students learn in class would closely tie in with what is being practiced at work, forming the foundation for hopefully a long-term relationship/permanent job. Further, both employers and employers would seek more from an apprenticeship than just short-term training. Instead of putting programs in place that tackle surface level aspects of the job, the employer should ensure that a depth of knowledge regarding the company’s goals, methods and systems is demonstrated. This will form skilled, thoughtful and self-reliant employees who can problem-solve when necessary.”

Properly training skilled workers needs to be a collaborative effort involving employers across the various industries, the federal and provincial governments, and educational institutions, says Gayowsky. Doing so will not only target the skills gap, but will also provide people with “a real and fair chance at success (by) helping them get the skills and training they need to succeed in a changing economy, and this can only be achieved if participation is encouraged and made active by our government, employers and institutions.”

He says a collaborative effort could be made most effective by:

  • A clear government approach that recognizes the importance of skills development in supporting our province’s economy
  • Alignment of federal and provincial policies that support a growing skilled workforce, such as immigration policy
  • A successful partnership between educational institutions and employers, with a mutual goal of solving the skills gap
  • More opportunities for experiential learning
  • The establishment of strategic investments and programs.

“The shared vision by all stakeholders should recognize that skills and education are not the same thing. Similarly, there’s a significant difference between a labour shortage and a skilled labour shortage. Understanding the supply and demand of workers’ skills will establish the foundation to effectively address the shortfall.”

Additional solutions could include:

  • Involving educational institutions and employers at the local level to participate in conversation surrounding skilled trades careers and its many benefits
  • Involving larger companies and building associations at provincial and national levels to provide informed guidance on benefits of seeking employment in construction
  • Implementing training for 21st-century jobs while up-skilling the current workforce
  • Diversifying the workforce and supporting a labour market that involves women, visible minorities and immigrants
  • Aligning efforts of employers and educational institutions to ensure that the skills employers need and the skills that workers are gaining are matched.

“The primary, and in my opinion, most significant solution that needs to be addressed is the promotion of trades as honourable, rewarding and viable career options for the existing and emerging workforces. An influx of training programs will never help if there is no one to enroll in them … addressing these image barriers must start at home, with parents, and in schools.”

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