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The Skilled Trades Dilemma

The Skilled Trades Dilemma-mundo-mileniostadium
Photo: DR


In Canada, we may see a shortfall of one million workers by 2021, as result of an aging population and declining birth rates. As Baby Boomers gear up for retirement, there is simply not enough of the next generation to fill those vacant jobs.  Would you believe me if I told you that employers have identified Skilled Trades as the number one most difficult job to fill today in Canada?

Politicians would have you believe that we are on the path toward a “knowledge-based economy.” That may be true, but don’t let that confuse the issue at hand: trade skills are in demand now, and will be even more so in the next decade. Contrary to what seems like a common belief, there is nothing “dead end” about entering a single trade. In fact, there are so many positions open across most of the trades. The chances of you transitioning from student or apprentice to full-time employee is phenomenal! So, what seems to be the difficulty?

In the coming years, around 40% of new jobs will be in skilled trades and technology — twice the ratio held in 1998, according to Skills Canada. The average age of a tradesperson in Canada was 40 in 2007, four years older than it was in 1987. It’s even older in a few specific fields, with the average age of welders at 56, and framers and finishers being in their 50s on average. Although retirement is coming later for many, it’s easy to see where this trend is heading.

Colleges, trades associations and government have for over a decade tried to restructure the course and drive greater interest in skilled trades; however, as a community we need to nip a few misconceptions in the bud. The long-term health of our industry requires that we do more.

Studies have shown that young people are often open to careers in the skilled trades. However, they are dissuaded by parents, educators and friends who perpetuate the stigma associated with such jobs. Facts: 42% of Canadian youth claim they are unlikely to consider a career in the skilled trades; 67% of youth and 55% of adults would choose university as the first post-secondary option; 26% of youth said they would consider a career in the trades; 60% of youth said their parents have not encouraged them to consider a career in trades; 71% of youth said guidance counsellors have not encouraged them to consider a profession in skilled trades.

We need to break the bad habits many have developed of devaluing the trades, apprenticeships and college educations. Let’s start by looking at (and correcting) a few myths and misconceptions about careers in the skilled trades:

Myth #1: There are more opportunities for university-educated workers — The very shortage of skilled-trades workers being discussed shows how false this is. In fact, since the ’90s, even when hit hard by recession, trade employment has grown slightly faster than non-trades, according to Statistics Canada.

Myth #2: You make more money with university experience — A few select university-schooled professionals — such as doctors and lawyers — boost the earnings on which this myth is based. The truth, however, is that studies suggest tradespeople across Canada generally earn salaries of around 6% more than the national average of all careers. In addition to earning more than average, training in skilled trades (often paid apprenticeship) means that most workers aren’t saddled by student debt.

Myth #3: Smart kids go to university — This is one of the biggest myths to continue to be perpetuated. Think of the advanced techniques and high technology that have become a part of a tradesperson’s toolbox. Successful tradesmen and tradeswomen require a solid grounding in math, analytical skills, literacy, the ability to solve complex problems, understand and analyze countless situations.

Many tradespeople have some degree of post-secondary education. Provincial requirements, in fact, set standards that make post-secondary education more common in some fields (like plumbing) than that of the general population.

Myth #4: The trades are for men — While it is not a myth that most workers in the skilled trades are currently men (97% in 2007), this assertion that the trades are for men is patently false. It is no different than the past biases against women in science and technology fields. It exists, but we need to do everything we can to eliminate it. This kind of old-school thinking obviously cannot help us get ahead in the years to come.

Here is my challenge to you; when you are sitting with your sons and daughters, ask them if they’ve ever considered a career in the trades? If they have not, they should. But do not stop the conversation there. Ask your children, “What would you like to be?”

Recently, my youngest son and I were discussing what he wants to be in the future. He has been exploring different courses, like computer science. Like a typical parent, I ask him if he wants to be a computer engineer. Like a typical teenager, he responds with the classic shoulder shrug and, “I don’t know.” I begin to press him, puzzled with his lack of an idea. Until my eldest son, who was listening to our conversation, said something so insightful, “Mom, leave him be, why does he need to settle on his future at 16?”

As a parent, I do not think we realize the pressure that we place on our children, with regards to their career choices. In our minds, we see all this hidden potential, which we desire to manifest within them. However, in doing so, we secretly implant seeds of expectation that our kids feel the need to grow. In doing so, we place added pressure, atop of the continued barrages they receive from their peers, teachers, and relatives. But we need to stop this sort of behaviour. As much as we want to see our children for what they could be, let us start seeing them for who they are. Which is to say, support your child in their journey, meet their interests with enthusiasm and confusion with support.

The skilled-trades are definitely an overlooked field, which parents and their children should look into. As a personal friend of mine in the construction industry shared with me, “The skilled trades people of tomorrow will earn the doctor’s salaries of today.” In saying that, let us show our children unconditional love and support on the understandably confusing journey of life.

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