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Skilled trade shortage remains a concern

Local school boards encouraging students to consider Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program and post-secondary courses

By Dave Flaherty/ The Oshawa Express

It’s a narrative that’s told again and again in Ontario, and across Canada – skilled workers are at a premium.

However, newly appointed Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft believes there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think most experts are still forecasting a significant gap, but I’m optimistic that we are starting to move towards better addressing things,” he explains. “It’s far better than five to 10 years ago, and more and more people recognize we can’t delay.”

But simply being more conscious of a problem isn’t a solution, and Howcroft says things are going to continue to “intensify”.

Colleges Ontario forecasts by 2030 the province will face a skilled labour shortage of more than 500,000 workers.

Denise Stirton, Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) facilitator for the Durham District School Board, says in her view, interest in the trades is on the upswing with students.

“I think there’s been a shift in the paradigm. I think parents are the key players in [showing] students that this is a viable career path.”

DDSB recently hosted an information session on skilled trades careers for parents, and Stirton says it was very successful.

One of the speakers at the event was former DDSB student, now 23 years old.

“He’s making $80,000 a year, he just bought his first house and paid off a motorcycle,” Stirton says. “You could see the parents seeing a future for their children [when hearing his story]. You could see they were excited.”

And while Stirton is a huge advocate for OYAP, there are some limitations.

“We have limited spots as we are in competition with four other school boards,” she says.

For example, 48 students have shown interest in the OYAP electrician program, but there are only 20 spaces.

“That’s why a lot of students do co-op, but they are not getting that college Level 1 training. And unless the employer wants to sign them to a registered training agreement, they have to begin over again,” Stirton says.

The board is also focusing on engaging employers to become involved with promoting careers in trades to students.

“We need them to be part of it. We want them to be part of that collaborative partnership,” Stirton says.

Hearing from local women who work in the trades first hand is perhaps the most effective way to promote these type of careers, says Pam Stoneham, associate dean of START.

“I think so, because sometimes it just takes seeing that it is a possibility,” she notes.

Durham also holds a number of “Taste of the Trades” tours throughout May, where local students can take an empirical look at the shop areas at the school and participate in hands-on activities.

According to Stoneham, enrolment in trades programs at Durham has been strong and steadily growing.

However, she says preparing for and addressing the upcoming worker shortage will be a “multi-year approach”, and efforts to highlight trades to younger generations need to continue moving forward.

As more tradespeople near the age of retirement, Howcroft says fewer students taking post-secondary programs in the trades compounds the problem.

“The average age of someone starting an apprenticeship is 27. If they started looking at these opportunities in high school or public school it would be better,” he says.

However, the opportunity to gain exposure to the trades at a young age is diminishing as well.

“It’s not afforded to many students these days,” he says.

For Howcroft, he believes some students may never consider a career in the trades for other reasons.

“Some parents may not let their kids know about another career track. Many parents think, no, their kids should go to university,” he notes, stating he feels it is counterproductive to not educate students on multiple-career paths.

To contest this perceived lack of exposure, Skills Ontario has several programs in place to promote trades among students.

In-school presentations hosted by the organization reach about 125,000 students per year and have been heard by more than one million students over the past decade.

These 45 to 60 minutes presentations are available to both English and French-speaking students.

Skills Ontario also has initiatives aimed at women and First Nations, M├ętis, and Inuit students, all demographics that are underrepresented in the field of trades.

The upcoming Ontario Skills Competition in Toronto May 7 to 9 serves as a sign of encouragement for Howcroft.

More than 2,000 elementary, secondary and post-secondary students will compete in nearly 70 contests.

“I think it bodes well. We are getting more and more interest, the number of competitors is growing and there are more people who visit and witness the competition. We are expecting between 30,000 and 35,000 visitors this year,” he says.