Trades tackle image problem

Trades have become so sophisticated that many require high levels of math and reading comprehension, says executive director of Canadian Apprenticeship Forum

Whenever he’s asked why there needs to be a campaign to promote the status of the skilled trades, Keith Lancastle only has to think of comments he too often hears from parents:

“My son is not doing well in school. He is taking remedial math and has difficulty reading. Maybe he has a career in the skilled trades,” is how the conversation often starts.

Lancastle, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, wants to dispel that notion. The trades have become so sophisticated that many of them, Lancastle explains, require high levels of math and reading comprehension.

“The image of the trades is still that it’s a place where you can go if you can’t cut it anywhere else. And the reality is, if you’re struggling academically, you will struggle in the trades just as much as you would in any other area.”

That’s why when the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, a sector council for trades apprenticeship, rolls out campaigns to improve the image of the trades, it aims its message at both students and parents. The message is also directed at high school counsellors, many of whom mistakenly think that they support the trades by recommending them to students who are struggling.

Between 1991 and 2001, the number of people working in the skilled trades declined by 3.8 per cent. This decline spells bad news when coupled with an aging workforce, said Lancastle, citing a Conference Board of Canada estimate that there could be a shortage of one million workers by 2020. In the steel industry, 45 per cent of all trades people are expected to retire by 2006; in the natural resources sector, 35 per cent of workers were aged 45 or older in 2001; in the construction industry, one in eight workers are 55 and older.

Image isn’t the problem that the skilled trades need to address to bring in new workers. However, the greatest challenge facing the skilled trades is not attracting new workers. Employers need to be persuaded to make apprenticeship opportunities available, said Lancastle. Unfortunately, he added, some employers fill their own staffing needs by poaching from a competitor down the street.

“As the entire baby boom cohort approaches retirement, (employers’) ability to (poach) will be significantly reduced,” said Lancastle, adding that the solution lies in “getting employers to recognize that an investment in apprenticeship makes good business sense in the short, medium and long term.”

Employers identify a variety of reasons for not offering apprenticeship opportunities, according to a consultation report that the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum released early in the year. The risk of having their workers poached is one.

Some employers also said they dislike having to release trainees for weeks of classroom training as required by the apprenticeship contract.

In some cases, employers simply won’t release the apprentices, said Vic Bodnar, training co-ordinator for the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario. Instead, they offer wage increases that usually come after the trainee completes the next round of classroom training.

As a result, said Bodnar, “we have a 14-year apprentice, who keeps putting the training off.” In its latest contract with employers the carpenter’s union addressed the problem by demanding a stringent policy of tying pay raises to training completion.

Another problem, common in the construction industry, is that contractors typically bid on jobs on a fast-track basis, meaning costs are determined in advance, said Bodnar. The margin for such jobs is so thin that employers don’t feel they can take on any apprentice. Even when they are motivated by the lower wages to employ apprentices, they still look for third- or fourth-year apprentices, leaving few opportunities for novices.

And often, apprenticeship positions are kept to a limit because the employer or the union can’t be certain of enough work in the months ahead, said Bodnar.

“If we don’t have lots of work, then we will only be doing a disservice to the people in the trades. They’re going to sit around and twiddle their thumbs, and they won’t stay. They have to make a living,” said Bodnar. “You also have to look at the need to maintain some security for the people who are already working.”

With such institutional barriers in place, there should be more effort put into smoothing their way, said Bodnar.

“Every time you turn around, you see another HRSDC program to promote the trades. Enough already.”

Larry Smith, adjunct professor of economics at the University of Waterloo and author of a 2003 report on employers’ attitudes toward apprenticeship, echoed this sentiment. If young people, drawn by awareness campaigns to enter the trades, find out that they have trouble getting work as apprentices, even as they read in the newspapers that there’s a skills shortage, “they will begin to assume that someone’s been lying to them.”

One of the complicating factors is for many trades and in many regions, the labour shortage problem is a problem of the future, said Smith, adding that a problem 10 years from now still has to be addressed today if the solution involves education.

There was little evidence that employers faced an immediate shortage of workers, at least among manufacturers in the Waterloo-Wellington region in southwestern Ontario where Smith conducted the study.

In the construction sector, where demand is volatile and cyclical, a labour shortage doesn’t necessarily translate into a competitive disadvantage for an employer because it affects competitors in the area as well. What’s more, said Smith, it’s not an appropriate solution to develop a supply of workers to staff peak demands as this approach will mean increased unemployment during busts.

Smith noted, too, that when employers complain about not being able to find skilled workers, they don’t necessarily mean that they can’t find workers, just workers with the level and quality of skills needed. And here is where Smith agrees with Lancastle that there’s a need for students to recognize how sophisticated and complex the skilled trades have become.

“If companies get applicants coming to them, frequently sent by guidance counsellors, and the applicants arrive improperly dressed, totally unfocused, without a clue as to what they’re doing, and grunting in reply to questions, they wouldn’t want them,” said Smith.

With repeated experiences of this kind, he added, employers may just get scared off of hiring apprentices altogether.

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