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Lack of Training in the Trades


Despite an upcoming shortage of skilled workers, not enough new employees are being trained to replace the baby boomer generation.

By Sarah Hartwick, staff writer

Based on the numbers, you’d think it would be easy for Bryden Wallace to become an electrician. The retirement rates are set to soar above the hiring rates for the skilled trades. He’s been persistent and patient. He’s called electrical companies; he’s talked to the electrical union. He’s been trying for over a year now – with no luck.

[pullquote] He’s been trying for over a year now – with no luck.[/pullquote]

Industry studies predict that there will be a shortage of skilled workers, including electricians, in the next two decades. The Conference Board of Canada reports that by 2020, Ontario alone will be short 190,000 skilled labourers and that by 2030 that number could be more than 500,000. As the baby boomer generation retires, there is concern that not enough new people are being hired and trained to replace them.

But a slow economy means that trade companies aren’t busy enough to take on workers that they need to train. “It’s tough without any prior experience in the trades,” says 26-year-old Wallace. “Without that experience, [companies] don’t really want to take a chance on you.” And although he’s done some work with low-voltage wire, he says it isn’t enough to get him the job.

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Photography by Shelbi Noble

Larry Slaney is the Director of Training for UA Canada, the union for plumbers, pipefitters, and welders. He says much of the problem lies in convincing companies to take on and train new apprentices – not always easy when companies are working to deadlines and could just as easily hire a licenced worker.

“They want totally skilled people they can put on a task,” he says. “It takes a long time to train labour. It’s alright when there is a boom, but when there’s no work, these people can’t get experience.” He adds that they’re often the first to be laid off.

The federal government confronted the problem in its 2013 budget, offering people seeking jobs in the trades a grant of up to $15,000 each towards skill-training programs. In addition, existing programs that offer tax breaks for apprentices and the companies that hire them will continue.

Gail Smyth, executive director for Skills Canada in Ontario, says many new applicants to apprenticeships are university graduates who’ve had no luck finding jobs. One of the organization’s goals is to promote the skilled trades to younger students. “If you’re not telling young people, they won’t know,” she says.

If young people can find a lower paying job in a company, or a co-op position, she says they have a better chance of being promoted to a high-paying apprenticeship, because the company is already comfortable working with that person. “It’s about finding the right person for the job,” she says.

Right now, Wallace is in the electrical union as a construction worker for a utility company, hoping to become an apprentice. He admits that it might have been easier to find an apprenticeship when he was younger and willing to work for a lower pay rate.

“I might be able to get, say, $14 an hour, at a small company, but I can’t pay my mortgage on that. I can’t live on that,” he says, adding that he will keep trying to find a break.

“As you get older, it’s nice to have a real trade. It’s worth it.”

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