A new report from Statistics Canada from the 2021 census shows that the percentage of working-age Canadians – those 25 to 64 – who hold apprenticeship certificates has either declined or remained stagnant in three key fields since 2016.
That includes construction trades, which went up by 0.6 per cent, mechanical repair technologies, which went down by 7.8 per cent and precision production which fell by 10 per cent overall.
In Ontario the construction field suffered a net loss of 3.8 per cent, while across the country 30.2 per cent of mechanic and repair technologies or precision production certificate holders were aged 55 or higher.
That same report shows a 4.3 per cent increase in the working age population that holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, noting that Canada leads the G7 in the percentage of population with a college credential (57.5 per cent).
The decrease in skilled trade workers is concerning, said Richard Lyall, president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario.
“There’s no question about it. It’s something that we’ve been dealing with for quite a few years. We just don’t have the amount of people going into the skilled trades that we need, and that’s why you’ve seen those reports on shortages in skilled trades. It’s costing $13 billion a year to the economy,” Lyall said.
The report’s findings came as no surprise to his organization.
“The bottom line is everything we live in, move on, move around, it’s all built by skilled trades. So that’s a significant problem,” he said of the labour shortage. “We’ve had a problem in skilled trades, in certain elements of construction.
“We’ve been seeing this and talking about it for a long time, but our school system is really geared towards and designed for producing and preparing kids for college and university,” Lyall added.
That will have to change as part of efforts to boost the ranks of the skilled trades, he added.
“You’ve got a school system that does not have the connections generally speaking, with skilled trade sectors. You’ve got school boards and guidance counsellors, in particular, and guidance officers that really are not knowledgeable about skilled trades. There aren’t the connections there should be with local industry. So you’ve got a lot of kids that graduated from high school…they haven’t had the exposure and prepared for skilled trades to the extent that arguably they should be,” he said.
Skills Ontario is a Waterloo-based organization that works to educate students and parents about career options in the skilled trades. They do this through in-school presentations, competitions, summer camp and by connecting students with employers. Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft agrees with Lyall that not enough students graduating high school know about skilled trade career options.
“We presented last year virtually to 220,000 students, which is a very impressive number. We’re really proud of that, but there are two million students in the school system. We hope our numbers go up significantly this year to get more kids, more students aware of what these opportunities are. And that’s been a long standing challenge. It was a long standing challenge 30 years ago, and it’d be even worse now,” Howcroft said.
However, meeting the labour shortfall will require “radical transformation of what we’re doing in our high schools and public schools,” Lyall said.
“You have to get the kids earlier in Grade 6, 7 and 8, start exposing them to skilled trades, opportunities and careers, because that’s when they pretty much decide what they’re going to do with their lives. And then in high school, there has to be courses and curriculum related to skilled trades,” he said.
“But the problem is that with our system, we don’t have the teachers who can do that. Our teachers in our high schools and guidance counsellors were people that pretty much went from high school to university and then back to high school again,” Lyall added.
The report also shows that women and racialized groups make up a small percentage of those with apprenticeship certificates.
Women made up 2.4 per cent of working-age apprenticeship certificate holders in the three fields in 2021. Racialized persons represented just seven per cent of working-age apprenticeship certificate holders in these trades, even though they are 27.3 of the total working-age population.
Much of Skills Ontario’s programming focuses on opportunities for girls and Indigenous students.
“If we can get more girls and young women aware of and interested in the trades, that would go a long way to helping fill the pool of potential workers. We also want to do, and we’re doing, programming for Indigenous youth. Indigenous youth is the fastest growing population in Canada,” Howcroft said.
As governments push for more housing, RESCON recently put out a call for a larger percentage of the immigrant population to be from skilled trades to help meet the demand.
“We’re not asking to increase the number of immigrants, but more of them should have more of certain skilled trades or be from certain skilled trades, according to our requirements here and according to what we need,” Lyall explained.
Howcroft agreed that immigration could be key in filling the gaps.
“We have huge shortages right now. And we will need immigration to help fill parts of that vacuum. Part of that shortfall will need to be found through immigration. So if someone comes with a certain skill set or certain competencies already, they can become an active player in the economy. And so some of these jobs that are going unfilled right now and keeping the economy held back,” he said.
There is, however, some hope, Howcroft said.
“I think we’re actually at a good time right now because more and more people are talking about it. More and more people seem to recognize we need to take these actions. We need to build this workforce for the future because we no longer have the luxury of time,” he said.