A Waterloo-based organization that works to educate Ontario teenagers about jobs in the skilled trades sector is praising the recent steps taken by the provincial government that provide high school students with an earlier introduction to the field.
The Ministry of Education announced earlier this month that, starting September 2024, all students entering Grade 9 will be required to get a technological education credit in either Grade 9 or 10. According to the ministry, the technological education curriculum covers various fields, including construction, transportation, manufacturing, computer technology, hospitality and communication.
“We’re really pleased with what the government is doing. We’ve been long stating that there should be more exposure to skilled trades in school. So we think this is a great move,” said Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft.
The province had previously announced on March 8 that it will allow students in Grade 11 to transition into skilled trade apprenticeship programs. The apprenticeship programs take from two to five years to complete. Once students achieve their certificate, they can then apply for their Ontario Secondary School Diploma as a mature student.
While there was no start date for this program, the province said that it will begin consultations this fall with “employers, unions, education stakeholders, trainers, parents, and others,” which could potentially lead to the lowering of entry requirements for 106 skilled trades that currently require a high school diploma.
“We think that any opportunity that will help access and accelerate someone going into an apprenticeship is certainly worth exploring,” said Howcroft.
“We also don’t think people should not get a high school diploma. You can do both. But this will allow somebody who may be struggling or looking for their future to maybe [get] an apprenticeship… so they can get access to the apprenticeship to start that and also continue and complete your high school diploma. It’s just another way to engage youth that may not be already engaged,” he added.
These announcements come at a time when skilled trades are facing challenges with filling jobs. According to the province, the construction industry alone will need 72,000 new workers by 2027 because of retirements and job growth.
A Statistics Canada report from last year showed that in 2021 the percentage of working-age Canadians – those 25 to 64 – who held apprenticeship certificates 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.
The average age of those starting a new apprenticeship program in Ontario is 28-29, Howcroft said.
“So if you start young people off with more information, more opportunities to have hands-on experience. We think it’s a better chance of someone starting to enter an apprenticeship or pursue skilled trade at an earlier age,” he said.
According to Darryl Spector, president of the automation manufacturing company Promation, one challenge is that there is still a negative stereotype around having a job as a tradesperson.
“Skilled trades, especially, is one of those areas [where] there’s still a lot of stigma and paradigms that exist, and we need to unwind and deconstruct those to what the actual truths are behind them,” the former chair of Skills Ontario said.
“I’ve had anecdotal discussions with some peers and colleagues who said ‘Oh, my son was looking at this but I talked them out of it, because I think they should go to engineering school, because they don’t get paid as much or I thought it was too dirty or not safe enough’ That’s so wrong. If you look at just the stats, there’s just so much opportunity,” he said.
With these changes, the province also hopes to encourage more young women to pursue trade careers. Although nearly 39 per cent of Ontario secondary school students were enrolled in a technological education course in 2020-21, nearly 63 per cent were male students.
According to the Statistics Canada report, in Canada, women made up 2.4 per cent of working-age apprenticeship certificate holders in the three fields in 2021, while racialized persons represented just seven per cent, despite being over a quarter of the entire population.
Getting more people from these groups that are underrepresented in the trades interested in that career path will help solve the employee shortage, Howcroft explained.
“We need to encourage and support people from those groups to get into it to deal with a skill shortage. What we’re looking at saying, well, we need to perhaps go in and provide girls with more information, perhaps provide them with mentors, experiences, showcase what other women have done to access a skilled trade, and find out what it’s all about,” Howcroft said.
“We know that to be fully inclusive and really build the workforce we need we have to get to those underrepresented groups,” he added.
Spector agreed, noting that the Indigenous population is the fastest-growing demographic in Canada.
“We’re not tapping into the untapped pools of young women and Indigenous [people]. Yet we’re complaining about a skilled trade shortage. Because you keep going back to the same pool, the typical, male demographic, and it’s a very small pool to pick from,” he said.