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Bustling skills competition a sign of the times

Don Wall
Bustling skills competition a sign of the times
DON WALL - Interest in the electrical trades are high, suggested exhibitors at an IBEW booth.

Many signs appear to be pointing to growing momentum in raising the profile of the skilled trades in Ontario — including, most recently, a major jump in the number of competitors at the 2024 Skills Ontario Competition held in Toronto.

The din in the sprawling Toronto Congress Centre was at times overwhelming during the May 6 to 8 event as thousands of boisterous students roamed the premises, testing machinery and making inquiries at industry booths.

Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft said the number of competitors has spiked by 400 this year, up to 2,800, and beyond that there are other indicators of growth — a new entrepreneurs session sold out, and registration for a seminar for guidance counsellors, in its second year, jumped significantly.

Howcroft said organizers were expecting to see 35,000 to 40,000 visitors over the three days.

“We’re really pleased,” said Howcroft. “The interest is there.

“Given the huge shortage of skilled trade workers and apprentices…we need to make sure young people are considering a career in the skilled trades and technologies. It’s our 35th anniversary and I’m starting to see and sense, anecdotally at least, a lot more interest in skilled trades. There’s a lot more parents considering that and that’s another audience that we’ve been trying to better engage with.”

A student receives a hands-on lesson at a UA steamfitter/pipefitter booth May 6.
DON WALL – A student receives a hands-on lesson at a UA steamfitter/pipefitter booth May 6.

Collaboration pays dividends

The latest BuildForce Canada construction workforce forecast for Ontario over the next 10 years established a lofty target for recruitment professionals like Howcroft.

Over the next decade, the provincial construction industry is expected to recruit approximately 105,000 new entrants under the age of 30 from within the province, leaving a projected gap of 35,500 workers.

But the March BuildForce report had praise for “robust industry and government promotional efforts” that have boosted the number of workers aged 24 years of age and younger in the construction labour force by 14 per cent since 2019.

Howcroft said he follows a mantra of three Cs — collaboration, co-ordination, co-operation — with the effort to find partners for Skills Ontario’s year-round promotional efforts never ceasing. School boards, for example, are increasingly creating awareness of the skilled trades in both elementary and secondary streams, he said.

“The school boards, I think, are better promoting it, better engaging young people in the positions and school competition, so that when we start doing our competition promotion, more and more people were signing up for it, so we’re really pleased with that,” said Howcroft.

Day one of the competition featured primarily contests for elementary school children from Grades 4 to 8 and also workshops. A Young Women’s Conference for girls in Grades 7 and 8 was also held.

Day two had contests for secondary and post-secondary students, hands-on exhibits in the Skills Ontario Career Exploration Showcase, and more conferences for high school girls, Indigenous students, francophones, the guidance counsellors event and the entrepreneurs conference, which had 900 registered.

Day three is the closing ceremony, with job offers on the spot for some.

There were 76 different contests this year, and 120 booths set up representing colleges, unions, employers and suppliers.


Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft noted that registration for the Skills Ontario Competition spiked this year.
DON WALL – Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft noted that registration for the Skills Ontario Competition spiked this year.

35,000-plus visitors expected

The success, he said, reflects the promotional efforts of the industry at large, the maturity of Skills Trades Ontario, which is now in its third year, and major support from the provincial government.

“I think the change in this government is, they’re talking about it, they’re collaborating, they’re working with organizations, but they’re also investing in it,” he said. “I’ve never seen a government put up so much funding support and investment support to help promote skilled trades, but also take it to the next level.”

Skills Ontario has taken advantage of new Ontario government funding from its Skills Development Fund. This has enabled support, Howcroft said, for such programs as the trades and tech summer camp, podcasts, DEI initiatives and its expanding trades and tech truck program which visits thousands of schools — and with an expanded fleet to come.

“We continue to look for ways that we can continue to expand our programming to make it more engaging, more impactful,” said Howcroft.

The expansion of Skills Ontario outreach will continue, Howcroft said, as it rolls out a new strategic plan and takes steps to move from strategy to action. The theme will be “changing lives through skilled trades and technologies.”

“It’s engaging young people, it’s leveraging our partners, it’s sharing that we are setting up the proper governance and accountability system for that,” he said.

Follow the author on X/Twitter @DonWall_DCN.

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