You may have noticed lately that it can take weeks to book a technician to look at your furnace, or that scheduling an appointment to fix your car means waiting longer than you’re used to.
These are tangible signs that we are experiencing a shortage of skilled tradespeople — a problem that is set to worsen unless it is addressed immediately.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of skilled trade jobs. Unless someone works in trades, or knows someone who does, the reason why there are fewer plumbers still working might not be so obvious — that is, until the faucet starts leaking or a pipe bursts.
We rely on tradespeople to keep our utilities running, fix our appliances, build and maintain our roads and many other things that are central to our everyday lives. Among the many issues contributing to the crisis in the travel industry, for example, is a shortage of pilots and mechanics.
Recovering from COVID-19
More insidious and threatening than longer wait times is the corrosive impact the trade shortage is having on businesses. Many are not only struggling to grow without an adequate number of workers, but are also finding it hard just to keep up with demand.
An October survey of 445 companies by Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters found that the worker shortage has significantly impeded the trade sector’s recovery from COVID-19.
Forty-two per cent of respondents reported their companies had lost or turned down contracts, or paid late delivery penalties because of a lack of workers. About 17 per cent of respondents said that their company was considering moving outside of Canada to find workers. Seventy-seven per cent of companies said attracting and retaining quality workers was their biggest concern.
The scarcer tradespeople become, the harder it will be to keep things running, and the more expensive it is to pay for their work when we can find them. Those issues, in turn, make it harder to attract businesses to Ontario and Canada.
Trade worker shortage
In part, the shortage is a matter of demographics. The baby boomers who built, fixed, maintained, baked and helped keep communities functioning are retiring, and there are more waves of retirement to come in the years ahead. BuildForce Canada projects that, by 2027, approximately 13 per cent of the construction sector will reach retirement age.
The problem isn’t just that these workers are retiring, but that they are not being replaced. The stigma that has developed around being a tradesperson is one reason why this is.
Even though many skilled tradespeople can make far more money than many so-called professionals, most children grow up seeing university as the best, most respectable post-secondary option, and community colleges and trade schools are viewed as second-tier fallbacks.
Immigration — a potential source of new tradespeople — is not making up the gap, either. There are barriers that prevent newcomers from taking up the trades they learned in their home countries and practising them in Canada.
In addition, as the supply of tradespeople continues to shrink, the next generation of tradespeople will find it more difficult to line up apprenticeships because there will be fewer mentors available to train them.
Closing the gap
Fortunately, there are some tactics that can help fix the current shortage of tradespeople. These strategies include:
Removing obstacles to women and minorities entering the trades, including fostering workplace cultures that welcome them and help them to adapt.
Providing more hands-on learning, starting earlier in life, to foster interest in the trades and demonstrate how it is possible to be successful and entrepreneurial as a tradesperson.
Highlighting role models to show how rewarding a career in the trades can be.
Ontario, through its Skills Development Fund, has committed $200 million to connect job seekers with the skills and training they require for well-paying jobs. Much of this fund focuses on the skilled trades by supporting pre-apprenticeship training programs.
As employment researchers, we studied one such program, the Tools in the Trades Bootcamp, presented by Support Ontario Youth on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.
The program featured 59 intensive, one-day bootcamp sessions across Ontario from September 2021 until March 2022. It included 46 sessions for high school students and 13 for targeted adults, focusing on trades in construction, industry, service and transportation.
Participants reported an improved appreciation for working in the trades, and a heightened intention of pursuing a career in the field. They also established new contacts with peers of similar interests, potential mentors and prospective employers.
While our analysis shows promising outcomes to combat the shortages in skilled trades, these bootcamps are only the start of addressing the issue. More initiatives and programs, both provincially and federally, and from both public and private sectors, are needed to educate and reduce barriers for individuals entering the skilled trades.