For some of the 46 high school students who participated in the day-long Skilled Trades Tour of two construction sites in the Barrie, Ont. area on Oct. 7, the day away from their schools, complete with a pizza lunch and an opportunity to check out large earth-moving equipment at a windswept Lafarge aggregates quarry, might have been somewhat of a lark.
But for stakeholders with the Barrie Construction Association (BCA), the Ontario Construction Career Alliance, the Simcoe County Heavy Construction Association and two school boards who organized and sponsored the event, the tours had urgency.
“Our members can’t find workers,” said Alison Smith, executive director of the BCA. “So, it’s important for us to do as much as we can to promote the trades to the students and give them on-site experience.
“It is on our board agenda every meeting, we talk about what we else we can do. I personally have driven to every high school in Simcoe county and delivered promotional material on the skilled trades to guidance departments.”
BuildForce Canada’s 2019–2028 Construction and Maintenance Looking Forward national report laid out macroeconomic numbers earlier this year. With the anticipated retirement of more than 261,000 workers, the country’s construction and maintenance industry will need to recruit an additional 300,200 workers by 2028.
It’s a refrain the participants in BCA event know full well. Brian Watermann, principal with Brian’s Little Electric and a BCA board member, guided students through a plant extension project at the Battlefield Equipment Rentals site accompanied by John Gibson, site supervisor for job contractor Bertram Construction.
“There is a huge need for workers,” Watermann said. “The contractors that I have spoken to are turning away work because we don’t have the workers to do more projects. We need to fill that void.”
Gibson, whose firm of about 40 employees currently has some nine jobs, commented, “We are struggling to find carpenters, labourers, anybody really. We have work coming out of our ears and we don’t have the people to do it.
“It makes it harder on us when we can’t find guys. We have to work our guys longer.”
Watermann explained his role on the tour was offering information to the students on how to get into the trades, highlighting the work different trades do on a typical job like the Battlefield build so they can further research the trades, and working with co-op teachers at the school boards — generally, pointing the students in the right direction to pursue the career.
“The trades have a lot of room for growth with endless possibilities,” Watermann said. “A lot of students don’t have any idea of the career potential the trades provide.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he advised the students. “ ‘How does this work?’ Show you’re willing to learn. Those are the employees who get paid the most. That is the way you get ahead in this profession.”
The good wages are a significant selling point, Smith noted.
“Our volunteers talk about their career paths and how they got there, what kind of schooling you need, and I like to talk about the money, to get them excited, because that’s what gets them hooked. The money is phenomenal,” she said.
Smith said sector-wide efforts are vital to tackle the manpower shortage. The BCA is a big supporter of the efforts of the Council of Ontario Construction Associations to coordinate a skilled trades task force, she said, and she also praised efforts of the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development to boost recruitment.
“We need a united front on this,” said Smith.
“The skills shortage is just going to drive prices up. As people retire and there are less and less workers, the prices are going up. Those prices are going to escalate in the next 10 years and there is going to be a crisis.”
Other allies are tech teachers, co-op coordinators and guidance counsellors at the high school level. Simcoe public board Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program coordinator Elaine McLachlin and David Fitt, a technical education facilitator with the board, attended the afternoon site visit to the Lafarge quarry in Oro Township.
McLachlin said educators need to speak to parents to convince them the skilled trades should not be a last option and suggested recruitment could be improved by a practice as simple as watching for students who like to use their hands to problem-solve.
“The person who wants to put together the piece of IKEA furniture or the barbecue that comes home in a box may be well suited to the trades,” McLachlin said.
Fitt said the Simcoe board has brought tech awareness to elementary schools through tool displays, and high schools are going through tech and trades renewals by ensuring teachers are trained to teach new technologies such as laser cutters and 3-D printers. There are about 100 high school students in the public board who are actively apprenticing in skilled trades this year, a number that has been going up in recent years.
“There is a lot of new equipment in industry but sometimes education is a bit slower in getting that into schools,” said Fitt. “But we have done a good job in our board.”
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