Canadian Apprenticeship Forum Tackles Skilled Trades Worker Shortage

The Canadian Apprenticeship Forum-Forum canadien sur l’apprentissage (CAF-FCA) is a national body that brings together all players in apprenticeship training. A national, not-for-profit organization working with stakeholders in all regions of Canada, CAF-FCA influences pan-Canadian apprenticeship strategies through research, discussion and collaboration, sharing insights across trades, across sectors and across the country to promote apprenticeship as an effective model for training and education. Ottawa Life recently interviewed Sarah Watts-Rynard, Executive Director, Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.

How bad is the shortfall in the trades sector? How does Canada acquire all the plumbers, electricians and carpenters it needs after generations of attrition in favour of white-collar jobs?

Sarah Watts-Rynard: Baby boomers are aging and moving on. They take a lot of specialized knowledge with them. In harsh economic times, businesses lay off their younger employees. In many cases, these are apprentices… they are the last hired and the first to be let go. They are the ones with the least experience. But when you do that, you lose the group that could replace people who are retiring.

This is a big challenge, because right now we see that different parts of the country have different trades that are in high demand. Alberta and Saskatchewan have booming economies and a huge need for skilled tradespeople in sectors such as oil and gas, mining and forestry. In Ontario, we see many trades, particularly those related to the manufacturing sector, are letting people go. So skilled trade shortages depend on location and what trades. (There are 150 designated trades across the country). Construction is looking at shortages across Canada – about 300,000 people in the next 10 years. That takes into account people who are retiring and it also takes into account any growth and new construction projects. The thing that is difficult, particularly with apprentices, is that if you started an apprenticeship in one part of the country and then were looking to finish your apprenticeship some-where else, it’s not always easy to take your on-the-job hours and technical training to a different jurisdiction. Apprenticeship is regulated at the provincial and territorial level, so is somewhat unique in each jurisdiction.

How big a window of opportunity does Canada have in which to eliminate the skills gap? What happens if Canada doesn’t succeed in doing so?

Sarah Watts-Rynard: I would say we probably have another five to 10 years in which we still have enough journeypersons in the workplace to serve as mentors for young apprentices. So now is the time to start training the next generation of skilled tradespeople. There are a lot of other obstacles. It’s not just a matter of having enough people who are available for training. How many young people are interested in learning a trade? In most trades, it takes about four years to learn all aspects of the job. If we have a five-to-10-year opportunity, we have to be working on it now in order to have certified journeypersons ready by the time we’re really hitting a huge proportion of the baby boomers retiring. There are huge gaps in experience levels. It’s not as though there is a large group of people waiting to take the place of the boomers who are retiring. There aren’t, because we left a hole somewhere in between the younger and older generations, reflecting a time when apprenticeship training wasn’t a priority for employers and skills shortages were not yet a significant issue.

What are the key issues that affect apprenticeship training, including per-ceived barriers to training?

Sarah Watts-Rynard: CAF has identified nine key barriers. Negative perceptions and lack of knowledge about apprenticeship by young people is a big one. Employers need to be aware as well. Our surveys show that even those employers who work in apprenticeable industries aren’t always aware of apprenticeship training (about 50 per cent). Those who do will sometimes identify cost as a barrier. They feel that the cost to train an apprentice is a hindrance. You have to register with the province; you have to assign a journeyperson who has the experience to work with the apprentice. Some employers have identified lost productivity and the burden of administrative costs as barriers to apprenticeship training. A lot of CAF’s work in the last few years has been around the return on training investment, to be able to show skilled trades employers that for every dollar they invest, they make on average a return of $1.47. We’ve been able to undertake studies in 21 different trades to come to that average. We have been able to convey this information to employers, apprenticeship authorities, and labour representatives. Stakeholders across the country use this data to convince employers about the value of apprenticeship training.

There is a different perception of the value of the trades as a career option in some parts of the world. The trades are generally held in higher regard in Europe. Here, if students don’t do well in high school, they may be encouraged to learn a trade as a last resort, undervaluing the skills required to be in the trades. You want smart people in the trades, people who will be your high performers. We have to turn this negative perception around. There are many advantages to being a skilled tradesperson – portability of skills being one advantage.

Have government education policies changed as a result of your work?

Sarah Watts-Rynard: I think so. Apprenticeship is regulated by each of the provincial and territorial jurisdictions. Every jurisdiction has its own apprenticeship system and its own way of going about regulating apprenticeship. CAF’s work has been more around influencing policy than changing it. I think one of the most effective things that we are able to do is to have provincial and territorial governments looking beyond their own experience, to be able to gain insight into some really innovative practices that are happening in another part of the country that they might not have known about.

Federally, there are apprenticeship grants and tax credits for tools that are available. While I certainly couldn’t say that CAF has been responsible for those being in place, I think that we have been able to bring a national profile to apprenticeship so we don’t have a federal government that says… “oh, that’s just a provincial matter that has nothing to do with us.” By bringing the stakeholders together, across trades, across sectors, across all the provinces and territories, we’ve been able to showcase how this is a national issue vital to our economic well-being. For example, resource extraction is inextricably linked to skilled tradespeople.

What message would The Canadian Apprenticeship Forum most like to emphasize?

Sarah Watts-Rynard: From my point of view, we still need to be talking about the value of skilled trades to Canada and that it is a great career choice. We have to be telling the next generation that there are good careers here. If you love working with your hands, that is not a bad thing. That is not substandard. More parents are starting to realize that plumbers and electricians make really good wages and these would be good career paths for their children. And the skills are portable, so if you lose your position, the chances are excellent you’ll find another job in short order. Once you have your certification as a skilled tradesperson, you can work anywhere in Canada or around the world. There are opportunities for advancement to managerial or supervisory positions. Many tradespeople also pursue entrepreneurship and are able to be their own bosses.