Canadian Manufacturing

Apprenticeships underused in tackling skills shortage

by Tyler Davie   

Manufacturing Energy Oil & Gas apprenticeships jobs Manufacturing StatsCan

Large investments in mining, energy, and infrastructure projects could compound a shortage of skilled tradespeople

TORONTO—The Canadian labour force is expected to drop from 67 per cent of the population in 2010 to 59.7 per cent in 2031, according to Statistics Canada (StatsCan). Businesses are scrambling to uncover new ways to replace Canada’s aging workforce.

The Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF), a federally-chartered, not-for-profit apprenticeship advocacy organization says there’s definitely room for apprenticeship growth.

CAF’s Employers and Apprenticeship in Canada report shows only 19 per cent of companies requiring skilled trades hire apprentices.

“We’re talking about these issues on a national scale,” says Dan Mott, director at CAF and president of Mott Electric, an electrical installation firm in Burnaby, B.C.


Indeed, a few massive projects are increasing the urgency of the skills deficit.

In Newfoundland, $43 billion in investments have been committed to mining and mineral processing, offshore oil and other infrastructure projects.

In Quebec, the province’s Plan Nord promises $80 billion over the next 25 years to mining, transportation and renewable energy projects.

Additionally, Quebec’s Route 167 will be extended more than 240 kilometres from Temiscamie to replace the gravel road to the Stornoway diamond mine in Lagopede. (Quebec’s government holds a 37 per cent ownership stake in that company).

Hydro-Quebec is planning hydroelectric, wind and tidal power developments in Romaine, Petit-Mecatina, Eastmain, and Sarcelle.

The $35-billion ship-building contracts for naval fleets in Halifax and Vancouver, expected to keep shipyards busy for 20 years, and $2-billion contract for 166 smaller ships is still up for grabs.

In Vancouver, however, Seaspan may not be able to find enough skilled workers for its portion of the project.

Because of the void left by the 2008 recession, Mott says, B.C.’s skilled workers won’t be able to support the $8-billion commission.

“When the going gets tough, employers are often forced to let apprentices go, not picking up new ones because of the cost,” he says.

But apprentice completion rates are poor even in good times.

A 2010 StatsCan report, Completion and Discontinuation Rates of Registered Apprentices, says 51 per cent of apprentices who registered in 1995 had completed their training by 2005.

StatsCan’s The Completion Behaviour of Apprentices report says the number of apprentices in Canada increased by 120 per cent from 1995 to 2007, but the percentage of the total apprentices completing their training in each year decreased from 10.5 per cent in 1995 to 6.8 per cent in 2007.

Pat Blackwood, another CAF director and national representative for the Canadian Auto Workers’skilled trades department, says apprentices don’t complete their training when there are no support mechanisms.

Blackwood says that members of unions have better completion outcomes.

“Outdoor construction companies and unions such as CAW have better outcomes because they have joint committees overseeing apprentices,” Blackwood says. “They make sure the apprentice gets all the areas of training they require and support at school.”

It is, however, smaller firms that are more likely to take on apprentices, according to CAF’s Recruiting and Retaining Apprentices report, which says 62 per cent of companies hiring apprentices have less than 10 employees.

The CAF says there’s profit to be made from apprentices from apprentices, suggesting return-on-investment of $1.47 for every $1.00 invested.

Rick Miner, partner at educational consulting firm Miner and Miner and former president of Seneca College, says that awareness of apprenticeship outside of the trades is also a challenge.

“People have lost sight of how skilled trades have evolved over the last decade,” he says. “There are very few skilled trades that you can get into without some kind of training beyond high school.”

Understanding of the labour market and shortages for existing jobs is reasonable, but Miner says Canada’s education system is not as good when it comes to preparing for jobs needed in the next five years.

“Right now we have a college system and a university system, and about 15 per cent of college students are university grads – that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Miner says. “We ought to be looking at programs where we articulate both concepts.”

He says harmonizing university and college training would help develop theoretical and applied skills.

“We ought to break the old mold of not working together and find new ways that benefit the students, business, labour and the economy,” says Miner.

Alongside working with governments and educational institutions to develop skilled trades programs, companies need their people to stay skilled, says Van Zorbas, a human capital partner at Deloitte.

“Nowadays you’re not just competing with Canada,” he says. “You’re not competing down the street – talent is imported from around the world.”

Applied and theoretical skills would be central to keeping Canada’s workers competitive, and apprenticeship and harmonization in the educational system would help achieve this end. A highly trained workforce is key to the health of Canada’s economy, particularly as the labour force shrinks and the country feels more of the effects of the world economy.


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