Canadian Manufacturing

Skilled labour shortages ebb and flow: CGA report

Issue largely regional, not national, as workers available



Canada’s skilled labour shortages are sporadic and short-lived, according to a report released by the Certified General Accountants Association of Canada (CGA).

The report, Labour Shortages in Skilled Trades—the Best Guestimate?, says a sufficient number of job seekers may exist, but personal preferences and wages cause labour shortages in one jurisdiction while surpluses exist in others.

“In the Atlantic provinces the unemployment rate for skilled trades is around 17 per cent,” said report co-author Rock Lefebvre. “Why are we not (more) successful in getting those people out to Alberta where they need more skilled tradespeople.”

Examining the five largest trade groups in the nation’s labour force—carpenters, mechanics, welders/machine operators, electricians and construction millwrights and industrial mechanics—the CGA found an ebb and flow pattern to the skilled trades in five Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Alberta).

According to the CGA, in 2011 9.7 per cent of the Canadian labour force was working in skilled trades occupations, down from 11.3 per cent in 1987.

This shift happened over time and, since 2000, has remained relatively stable.

The proportion of the Canadian labour force involved in trades was fairly stable throughout the 2000s, according to the report, with 1.8-million Canadians working or looking for work in the skilled trades in 2011.

The association’s assessment found labour shortages over the last decade occurred in different regions and didn’t last more than a year.

Brief labour shortages, though, may have certain benefits.

Tighter labour markets encourage professional development and growth for employees and may better align wages with growth in productivity.

Overall, though, the CGA says labour shortages are difficult to observe and measure.

“(You have) to consider migration patterns (and) you’ve got to consider immigration as well,” Lefebvre said.

According to Lefebvre, he has heard Alberta will need as many as 10,000 skilled trades workers for the oil and gas industry alone by 2015.

“Someone may have studied it somewhere, but it becomes an anecdotal suggestion,” he said. “So everybody’s working with that 10,000 number now, but how do we know?”

As the country has seen in the past, projected shortages have caused certain industries—information technology among them—to see an overproduction of skilled workers.

The consequences of an incorrect assessment of a labour shortage could have detrimental effects, according to the CGA, and may lead to “sub-optimal distribution of human capital” across jurisdictions and skill levels.

Another hurdle in determining whether perceived shortages exist, according to the report, is inaccurate or imprecise information.

While Statistics Canada data exists for the five trades groups in Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, accurate data is scarce for the other provinces.

Also, there is no concrete definition of what qualifies as a skilled trade, the report found.

Depending on where you look, the CGA found as many as 418 skilled trades in Canada.

While some jurisdictions or certification programs only recognize a handful of professions as skilled trades, StatsCan lists approximately 50.

“We look at skilled trades as a big subject, but unless you can zoom in it’s hard to make a compelling case for government or anybody else to make policy decisions—whether they be in the form of incentives, to have people certify in certain areas or move from other regions—when you can’t hammer down exactly who needs what,” Lefebvre said.

Regardless, though, something needs to be done to either squash the national perception of skilled labour shortages, and address any shortages that may exist.

According to Lefebvre, there are two simple ways to do this: either manage it to death, or let the system evolve on its own.

The laissez faire approach, according to Lefebvre, would let a natural pattern develop wherein people looking for work flock to jobs most in need.

“There’s a natural trajectory or behaviour or pattern that will emerge regardless of what government or anyone else does,” he said. “If we know that there are jobs in certain areas or certain professions the young people will naturally pursue those.”

The other side would see instruments and incentives that encourage training for careers and trades that need them most.

Despite setting out to help in determining how, why and if labour shortages develop, Lefebvre himself concedes the study may have left more questions than answers.

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