National construction industry stakeholders are not ready to sound alarm bells despite data showing that apprenticeship registration numbers dropped precipitously during 2020.
Statistics Canada reported in December that preliminary apprenticeship registration numbers for 2020 indicate that new registrations and certifications in the trades saw large drops from February to September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. Registrations fell 43 per cent while certifications dropped 49.7 per cent.
Year over year, April saw the biggest decreases in the number of new registrations, down 71.2 per cent from a year earlier. Compared with 2019, certifications reached their lowest point in June, down 76.4 per cent.
The obvious reason for the decline, noted Sean Strickland, executive director of Canada’s Building Trade Unions, was the hit taken by the overall economy and the construction sector over the course of the year due to the pandemic.
I think it’s a sign of uncertainty and a sign of trying to batten down the hatches,
— Sean Strickland
Canada’s Building Trade Unions
“As we went through various stages of construction shutdown for various lengths of times across the country, there was lots of uncertainty about whether or not we’re going to start up and it was pretty challenging for contractors to make new investments in apprentices and also equally challenging for apprentices to decide on a career in the construction industry,” said Strickland.
A small contractor would be focused on keeping its dozen or so existing employees on the payroll during tough times, said Strickland, and it would not rush out to hire a new apprentice.
“I think it’s not a sign of a lack of commitment to apprenticeship,” he said. “I think it’s a sign of uncertainty and a sign of trying to batten down the hatches and look after the business that you have right now and the people who you’re employing.”
The numbers underscore the need for governments to spend more on infrastructure in 2021, Strickland stressed, and not leave it to external market forces to get apprenticeship numbers back on track.
Ken Lancastle, COO of the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada, noted the numbers were termed preliminary and that final reports detailed by sector might tell a different story.
“It doesn’t speak to the individual apprenticeship streams within that whole number, so we’ll be interested to see which apprenticeship streams really were impacted the most,” said Lancastle.
“I think speaking from the industry perspective, we’ve managed to keep our heads above water throughout the pandemic, there has been some work across the country.”
There are regional differences across the country that have to be recognized as well, he suggested. Apprenticeship data reflect the strength of local labour markets, a point illustrated by the Statistics Canada final apprenticeship report for 2019, also released in December, that showed significant disparities across the country.
That year, new registrations nationally in apprenticeship programs fell 2.9 per cent and certifications in the trades fell 3.9 per cent from 2018.
Over three-quarters of the decline occurred in Alberta, where the number of new registrations in apprenticeships fell by almost one-quarter, down 2,832 to 11,607 in 2019, its lowest level in a decade.
Quebec (up 422) and British Columbia (up 232) reported the largest gains in the number of certificates granted.
Statistics Canada noted the construction industry in Quebec and Ontario experienced strong employment growth in 2019, up 5.7 per cent and 2.0 per cent respectively. This helped new registrations in apprenticeship programs reach a 10-year high in Quebec (23,568) and a five-year high in Ontario (20,991).
The Ontario government also provided a snapshot on apprenticeship growth over the past two years. The active apprentice count as of July 1, 2018 was 70,765; as of last Dec. 16, it was 77,119, an increase of 19 per cent.
“From our perspective, it’s important that there’s predictable work for the industry so that employers are able to take on apprenticeships and provide those training opportunities for those apprentices to work and to continue through the apprenticeship program,” said Lancastle. “One of the ways to address this is ensuring that there is consistent, predictable stimulus so that employers know work isn’t just coming in Q1 and Q2 but longer term they can see the work that’s coming. They are then able to commit to some of those apprentices and bring them on.”
Bill Ferreira, executive director of BuildForce Canada, took note of the 2019 report and suggested better times may be coming for Alberta.
“We have obviously seen labour force reductions in Alberta as a result of various challenges in the province,” he said. “We think we’ve finally reached the bottom, and then from this point forward, certainly we are projecting that there will be growth, not only in employment opportunities but growth in the labour force in Alberta, looking at over the next 10 years.”
As for the 2020 drop in apprenticeship registrations nationally, Ferreira expects that to reverse over time in 2021.
“Apprentices were heavily impacted by COVID-19,” he said. “We expect, though, that that is a short-term blip and as vaccinations roll out and as the economy starts to pick up again, where we were seeing growth, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in terms of apprenticeship development, that’s going to continue.”
Despite the uneven numbers of the past two years, Ferreira said, “I don’t believe that there’s any glaring fundamental challenges in the apprenticeship development system that were exposed by COVID-19.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.