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Good Help is Hard to Find

Good Help is Hard to Find

One of the biggest threats contractors currently face is not having enough work, but finding enough skilled trades to help them finish their projects – potentially forcing them to get more involved in the public sector to help themselves jumpstart their personal businesses. 

There is a serious skills shortage in Canada, particularly for experienced carpenters and apprentices, as billboards and signs at construction sites around British Columbia would indicate. Experts estimate that Canada might be experiencing a crucial absence of skilled trades by as soon as 2020. 

The numbers are as eye-opening as they are alarming.

According to the Skilled Trades College of Canada, over the next decade, one million skilled tradesmen and women will be needed to keep Canada’s growing economy strong. The “Taking Action on Skilled Trades” research report published by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce estimates that Ontario alone will face a shortage of around 100,000 skilled trade workers in the manufacturing and building sectors over the next 15 years, due to retirement. 

If these workers are not replaced, the provincial and federal government would stand to lose between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion in combined taxation revenues, the report suggests. The impact to Ontario’s economy will be cumulative loss of some $43 billion by 2020.

Worse yet, despite the golden opportunities that abound, fewer people are being drawn into the industry. According to Stats Canada, there were 417,306 Canadians enrolled in apprenticeship programs in 2016 – down 50,000 from 2013. 

Casey Edge, Executive Director of the Victoria Residential Builders’ Association, says this is not a new problem. 

“We’ve known about it for years, but governments have not structurally changed the education problem to address it,” he says. “The issue is not simply apprenticeships, it is youth’s widespread exposure to the trades.”

Edge adds that technology is drawing more youth away from practical skills, and if it weren’t for the influx of children following their tradespeople and builder parents into the field, the situation would be even worse. 

“Without the family influence, we would have a much bigger problem.”

As things stand now, the skills crisis is definitely creating problems for the contracting industry, especially in British Columbia, where housing prices are the highest in Canada -- more than $200,000 over the national average. 

“Skills shortages limit housing supply and increase costs to consumers,” Edge says.  “We are already limited by greenbelts, anti-development groups and three levels of government using housing as a source of revenue.” 

The consequences pile up, he maintains. First, if there is a skilled labour shortage, home builders must carry land/development costs, permit fees and property taxes for months until the home is built and sold. Plus, builders need to pay workers higher wages to entice them to their jobs. Those extra costs, plus increasing costs for materials and drywall, are passed on to homebuyers. 

Fortunately, Edge does see potential opportunities to combat this crisis – but it will require a new approach from government and its role in the educational system as a whole. Currently, government and university administrators promote what they know: more academic-based knowledge. Surveys indicate that many current trade students have a year or two of university experience, which suggests that the traditional university grind isn’t for them and they choose a trade instead. Encouraging students to pursue a more broad-based education instead could provide dividends. 

“There needs to be widespread exposure to practical skills at early ages and crossover between universities and trades schools,” Edge says. "Arts students could take electives in framing, and carpentry students could take business," he adds.

“If we accomplish widespread exposure to trade, we will increase the numbers.” 

Edge points to British Columbia creating education and licensing requirements to become builders as helping create a clearer career path for youth to the trades, while supporting professionalism and consumer protection for the industry as a whole. 

However, he warns, contractors might have to find some time off the site to help lobby people to join them in the industry. 

“We need to have a bigger impact in the education system and that means government,” Edge says. “Put pressure on your (elected federal and provincial officials) to create cross-over between the universities. At the K-12 level, contractors need to run in elections for school trustees and start shifting resources into trades exposure at elementary and high schools.”

That's only half the battle. Once contractors attract people to the industry, they need to create an “atmosphere of professionalism and stability” to keep them there. 

“We are competing with technology companies and other industries for skilled workers, so leadership in the workplace is critical,” he says. 

Ultimately, Edge believes it comes down to rethinking and remodelling the education system to engineer a change in philosophy. 

“We have to stop delivering education in bureaucratic silos, which is limiting opportunities for youth and is negatively (affecting) housing affordability.”