The skilled trade shortage across the country haunts the construction industry, and challenges both government and training colleges. Recent shifts in cabinet responsibilities and new funding announcements from the Ontario government are the latest attempt to re-brand the skilled trades as attractive career choices for young people.
However, there’s more to the issue, says one expert.
Mac Greaves is Associate Dean at Georgian College’s Midland and Bracebridge campuses, both a few hours north of Toronto. Greaves also chairs the Heads of Apprenticeship Training committee (HAT) that represents the 24 public colleges in Ontario that supply over 80 per cent of the province’s apprentices. That puts him at the crossroads of training and hiring.
While the recent program and funding announcements are welcome, Greaves sees a critical bottleneck in the uptake of apprentices from industry itself. It’s a situation that concerns him deeply.
At a recent annual gathering of regional employers, Greaves was stunned by statements made during the open discussions.
“Two flatly said they will not hire apprentices. One said that they only wanted to hire certified tradespeople. Then they asked what the Ministry was going to do to increase the number of those certified tradespeople.”
They may not be the only employers thinking that way. Some believe that if they make the commitment to train an apprentice through to certification, the apprentice will then simply leave for another company that pays more.
“That is such a short-sighted and out-dated attitude,” says Greaves. “What appears to be lost to them is the fact that if you are not hiring apprentices, you are the problem, not the solution. And if you can’t retain your workers, then you’ve got another problem — it’s not someone else’s issue. For a company to stand up and openly say they’re not going to hire apprentices, they may as well just shut their doors.”
“There are, in fact, no certified journeymen out of work right now,” continues Greaves. “If they are out of work, you don’t want to hire them because there’s a reason. The only certified tradespeople you can really hire are the ones you steal from someone else.”
Many construction sector employers have told Greaves that while they are in a dire situation, they don’t have time to train apprentices, despite the reduction in required apprentice-to-journeymen ratios down to 1:1.
Demographic projections do not favour those who shun the hiring of apprentices. Studies of the Simcoe County and Muskoka workforce cited, by Greaves, state that in 1980 there were six people under the age of 25 for every worker aged 60 — today it is virtually the reverse. It’s not getting better either. In fact, Greaves suggests there won’t be a return to levels seen even as recently as five years ago until 2033. “Short-term solutions are only going to be short-term. We’re going to have another 12 or more years when it’s going to be tough to find young people entering the workforce.”
There’s also strong competition across all industries for the few young workers who are out there. Greaves uses the example of the long-term health care sector.
“They are critically desperate for entry level PSWs (personal support workers). They’re targeting the same market as manufacturers and contractors.”
One local health network Greaves knows about is offering students $5,000 to assist with school tuition and books. “That’s the kind of competition that we’re seeing in the skilled trades area for those young people entering the workforce.”
Educators like Greaves feel that unless reluctant employers drop their resistance to apprenticeship hiring, efforts by government and colleges to attract young people to the skilled trades will be thwarted. Who will sign up for training if there’s no potential for a job at the end?
It’s an attitude that needs to change, says Greaves. “We need to educate the employers.”