With an aging workforce and infrastructure spending ramping up, the need to teach specialty skills such as crane and heavy equipment operation in Ontario has gone past talk and into crunch time.
Mike Gallagher, Oakville, Ont. business manager of Local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), addressed the gravity of the situation recently as he welcomed funding for seven new pieces of heavy equipment worth close to $1.3 million for the Operating Engineers Training Institute of Ontario (OETIO) campuses in Morrisburg and Oakville.
The OETIO trains crane operators as well as heavy equipment operators who run dozers, backhoes and excavators but Gallagher said they are barely keeping up with demand.
There are currently 320 crane and tower apprentices training at the Oakville centre but research shows OETIO and the colleges who also train heavy equipment operators are in a race against time as the huge boomer generation reaches retirement age.
The average age of a journeyman mobile crane operator according to Ontario statistics compiled in 2012 was 50; even more pressing, the average tower crane operator was 58.
"We carefully monitor that," said Gallagher. "We allow retirees to work for a certain amount of time after they retire but you can only keep working for so long at this trade, it is a physically demanding trade."
"So the opportunity is there for young people considering a career."
Retirees willing to keep working now represent an essential component of Ontario’s heavy equipment operator workforce, said Gallagher.
"At one time we had 700 retirees working," he explained." If we didn’t have them we would have had a severe shortage of equipment operators."
It’s a situation that can’t continue, said Gallagher.
"You can’t ask retirees to go out when they start breaking into their 70s. They shouldn’t be on a crane or on a job site."
To bolster the workforce, governments, colleges, business and trades organizations and other agencies are all making efforts to encourage participation in skills training. Both the Ontario and the federal governments announced programs to boost training in their recent budgets.
At the local level, even outside organizations such as the YWCA have been enlisted by Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities to invite women to train. In Hamilton, for example, the Y is working with Mohawk College to train women to become machinists and millwrights.
A report released by Employment and Social Development Canada in 2013 specifically mentioned heavy construction equipment crews as one of seven job categories that are facing labour shortages through to 2022.
Besides funding for the equipment, the OETIO also received funds to help train youth, new Canadians and aboriginals as operators of tractor-loader-backhoes, excavators, haul trucks and dozers.
Gallagher said the new equipment will not only attract recruits to these essential trades but will help with imparting highly specialized skills. The new-equipment investment allows the OETIO to buy four excavators and two dozers for the Morrisburg training campus and a tower crane for the campus in Oakville.
The crane in particular will be a big asset to the program, Gallagher said. It is a Liebherr 85 EC B5b model that has leading-edge capabilities, with a bottom and top climbing system.
"With the tower crane, we will be the only training institute in North America that has a climbing crane that I’m aware of so we’ll be able to train members not only to operate them but to erect them, put the crane together, just as they would as if working on a job site downtown building a building."
The funding, announced April 4, comes from the province’s Apprenticeship Enhancement Fund and Pre-Apprenticeship Training programs.
Gallagher argued that the OETIO’s efforts to recruit Ontarians from all walks of life are especially important to ensure the province’s construction sector continues to thrive amidst external threats.
"One other thing that is of particular interest to us is to make sure that the people doing the work are from Ontario, benefiting the people of this province, not bringing in people unnecessarily from offshore," he said. "We worry about that, where the government is going federally with the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) free trade deal that the Harper government signed and the Trudeau government is considering.
"Even dealing with pipelines, we would like to do that work with our own Canadian forces, our own Ontario forces. I think it is important for us to have skilled labour to do the work or else the excuse comes that we can go elsewhere looking for our manpower."
Young people are always a target, and women, and returning soldiers through the Helmets to Hardhats initiative, said Gallagher, but recruiting workers from the aboriginal community has special currency these days. Gallagher notes that the OETIO already works with the federal government training recruits from Nunavut.
"It is not a matter of putting bodies out there to sweep shacks," he said, referring to potential Ring of Fire mines and the new Rainy River mine. "We want to see people get really rewarding jobs that give them skills that after the mine is complete that they’ve built, they can either get a job there or their skills are transferable to other parts of the country and they’ll have a career.
"That is life changing for anybody but particularly for those challenged communities."