Spending billions on P3 projects won’t bring the economic recovery and social development that infrastructure stakeholders yearn for unless there is the skilled workforce in place to get the work done. And so delegates attending day two of the recent Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships conference were invited to hear from workforce experts how labour, governments and industry are working together to overcome Canada’s skilled trades gap.
The Nov. 18 session, delivered online, was billed as Infrastructure Stimulus and Canada’s Skilled Workforce; it was moderated by Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association.
Panellists were Joseph Mancinelli, Labourers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) international vice-president; Jamie McMillan, founder of KickAss Careers; and Greg Meredith, Ontario’s deputy minister of labour, training and skills development.
Meredith was attending in the stead of Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, who was called away at the last minute. Meredith said it’s crucial for all partners in the construction sector to work together to replace the over 250,000 construction workers expected to retire in the next decade.
“Where I am sitting right now is a testament to the power of the construction industry,” Meredith opened, pointing over his shoulder to half a dozen tower cranes dotting the Toronto skyline.
“The skilled trades strategy we announced recently goes to the heart of the issue, looking systematically at how we can enhance the attractiveness of careers.
“I am glad to mention careers. People talk about jobs, these aren’t jobs, they are lucrative, valuable, lifelong careers. In fact we have more of them than we have people to fill them. Hence how desperate it is that we work with partners to attract more people.”
The Ontario provincial government has announced a multi-phased plan with a pledge to spend some $800 million over the next three years to boost the numbers of trades workers, Meredith said. Components of the plan include the Breaking the Stigma program; Simplifying the System; Encouraging Employer Participation; and Supporting Workers to Acquire In-Demand Skills.
“We are fully invested in this endeavour with you,” Meredith said.
McMillan became an ironworker in 2002 when women represented only two per cent of the construction workforce and today, as an ambassador for KickAss Careers, her career remains one of the strongest examples she can offer up to young women who are hesitant to enter the male-dominated field.
KickAss reaches out to children as young as kindergarteners as part of the recruitment process.
“When I discovered skilled trades it completely changed my life,” said McMillan. “It is really important to get into discussions of the skilled trades at a young age.”
Mancinelli agreed it’s important to reach children as young as possible — and their parents. When he was a young man, Ontario schools had shop classes but because of budget constraints they were eliminated.
“Parents didn’t mind that, they think their children are going to be Nobel Prize winners,” he said. “They are by far the biggest obstacle.”
One of the best arguments Mancinelli makes to promote LIUNA is its strength. It represents 140,000 construction workers across the country, many of them older, meaning there are jobs to be had when the older workers retire, and the jobs, pensions and benefits are exceptional. Skilled construction labourers, he said, contributed significantly to the growth of the middle class in Canada.
Mancinelli was asked by Van Buren how LIUNA is reaching out to recruit from underrepresented groups.
The LIUNA executive responded by saying the programs have to be in place — LIUNA has scores of training programs in place across the country, and with Aecon runs a program at its north Toronto training centre targeting women — but there also has to be adequate communication.
For example, women tend to think careers in construction are too physically demanding, but take a look at hospitals, he urged, and see how many nurses, mostly woman, are doing that challenging work.
And addressing Indigenous communities, Mancinelli said, the message has to get out how powerful a motivator it can be when Indigenous youths complete their training and start a construction job.
“The entire community gets raised,” he said.
As for new Canadians, Mancinelli said Canada is missing an opportunity when it requires newcomers to show extensive proof of training certification. Reform is needed to enable new Canadians who can prove they can do the job to start work more quickly in Canada.
“They should come to the front of the line because we need them,” he said.
Added Mancinelli, “By and large we are working right through the pandemic. What a great message to tell young people, Indigenous people, women.”
Meredith agreed that effective communication was imperative.
“We need to attack the information deficit,” he said.
And McMillan confirmed the point.
“KickAss Careers is building a team of credible people who can go out and tell diverse stories,” she noted.
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.