The warnings started nearly half a century ago: Ontario’s education and training system is not producing enough workers with the skills to meet the growing needs of industry.
Although the skills gap has serious implications, affecting Ontario’s ability to compete and grow its economy, successive governments haven’t made much headway in addressing it.
Narrowing the skills gap isn’t easy. However, meaningful progress is possible if those campaigning to form the next Ontario government are willing to listen.
Tackling Ontario’s widening skills gap should be a priority in every region in the upcoming provincial election. Any candidate who might think otherwise hasn’t heard the alarm bells.
The Conference Board of Canada estimates the skills gap costs Ontario’s economy about $24 billion annually in lost economic opportunity. All kinds of studies warn it will get much worse, as millions of baby boomers hit retirement age and leave the workforce.
That’s because the number of workers available to replace retirees is decreasing. For years, educational preferences have been shifting. All too often, the skilled trades are overlooked as a career option even though these are the skills that our future economy requires.
According to Skills Canada, almost 40 per cent of new jobs created in the next decade will be in the skilled trades. However, currently only 26 per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 are considering a career in these areas.
Ensuring Ontario’s skilled trades system is responsive to industry and our advancing economy takes more than incremental changes.
A systematic approach is required and here’s why:
Ontario is the only province where apprenticeship registrations are dropping, according to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.
The skilled worker shortage is at an all-time high in many regions and sectors of the province, yet many companies that want to hire more apprentices have to turn them away.
The reason: Ontario has among the highest journeyperson to apprenticeship ratios in Canada. For trades such as carpentry, a company must have three licensed journeypersons on staff in order to hire and train one apprentice.
Ontario’s restrictive apprenticeship ratios should be updated to help close the skills gap, and open up more opportunities for young people who want to work in the skilled trades. Until then, the province will not be able to attract or train skilled tradespeople in the numbers needed.
Right now Ontario is not equipping the future workforce with the right hard and soft skills to meet 21st century demands.
The world is changing so fast that Ontario’s conventional, one-size-fits-all approach to skills training clearly isn’t working. Not when apprentices in Ontario have less than a 50/50 chance of graduating. Not when 30 per cent of Ontario businesses are having a hard time finding workers with the right skills, especially in sectors that rely on the skilled trades such as manufacturing, engineering and construction.
As time goes on, more jobs will require modern, multi-skilled tradespeople, whose skills are adjustable and transferable as our economy changes. Rather than focus on time-based qualifications for on-the-tools training, modular and stackable approaches to skills training and development are needed. When competencies are recognized, this allows for greater flexibility and the opportunity for young people to gain practical work skills much more quickly.
Compulsory certification is another barrier that exacerbates the Ontario skilled trades shortage. The Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) charges mandatory fees of $120 annually for new journeypersons and $60 for every new apprentice. The way to welcome and encourage young people who’ve chosen skilled trades careers, is to dismantle barriers. Compulsory certification that forces tradespeople to pay a fee to OCOT in order to be an apprentice simply isn’t right.
Today, skilled tradespeople are in demand, allowing them to pay off schooling costs far faster than many university grads with soft skills. When comparing return on investment for education, skilled trades programs offer a real advantage, especially in today’s changing economy.
That’s the message OCOT and the province will have to work hard at getting through to guidance counsellors and teachers who still aren’t treating the skilled trades as a career choice that’s just as, if not more valuable than, a university education.
Despite the best of intentions over the years, Ontario’s skills gap has gotten worse, not better. The next provincial government has an opportunity to make sure the next generation has the skills to keep Ontario’s economy competitive.
It starts with making Ontario a leader on apprenticeships and training so it’s easier for young people to pursue a career in the skilled trades.
Joe Vaccaro is chair of the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance. Send comments and Industry Perspectives column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.