Ottawa -- Employers in the skilled trades across Canada are reporting they face difficulties finding people with the skills required for their businesses. Yet, according to our research, only about 19 per cent of those same skilled trades employers are actually training tomorrow's journeypersons.
And while the consequences of skills shortages and mismatches are a serious problem for both business and Canada's economic interests, those same businesses as well as politicians are focusing on finding solutions only within their control, such as supports for the apprenticeship system and employers who actively develop skills in their employees.
But there is another element that needs to be considered.
Can youth, after absorbing negative feedback from parents, teachers and friends about the suitability of entering the trades, be persuaded skilled trades careers are a viable option?
A good place to start changing that negative perception would be to increase the emphasis on hands-on learning during secondary school. How many students today are encouraged to pick up a hammer, install baseboard (a true test of three-dimensional problem-solving) or change a tire? Mechanical skill is rarely developed sitting at a desk. Many students are still directed away from those rare, magical classrooms that smell like wood or engine oil or food -- usually by adults who truly believe working with your hands is an option of last resort. Students need to see daily examples of the trades in action to give them tangible proof of the opportunities that could be awaiting them.
One of the most interesting discussions I hear in the apprenticeship community revolves around the age young people start to think about their career decision choices. Embedded in those choices are their perceptions and understanding about what it means to be a skilled tradesperson.
In a recent national survey of more than 870 students, my organization captured a snapshot of the skilled trades from the perspective of today's 13-to-17-year-olds. When compared with a similar survey in 2004, youth in 2013 are more open to considering a career in the trades and a vast majority say they believe being a plumber, welder, electrician or auto mechanic are valued on par with being a lawyer, doctor or accountant.
In their comments, students expressed the value of hands-on learning, the importance of doing work you enjoy and respect for the contribution of tradespeople. This is good news for employers ready, willing and able to train an apprentice.
However, while young people may be willing to consider a career in the trades, their parents, guidance counsellors and friends are not supportive. Comments from students indicate those with the greatest influence on their career choices don't value apprenticeship the same way they do a university education. As a result, university remains the first-choice destination after high school.
The survey raised a number of other red flags. Roughly a quarter of survey respondents said the trades offer better opportunity to men than women, reflecting a stereotype that persists decades after women have proven they too excel in male-dominated fields. Today's youth are also less likely to agree the skilled trades will always be in demand, which tells us they don't put much faith in the ever-changing job market or in the promise of a job.
Our findings suggest business and governments have a long way to go to solve skills shortages in Canada. The implications for public policy are significant because, while we need university-educated workers, we equally require people able to build, operate and maintain Canada's infrastructure. Canada needs doctors and millwrights, teachers and boilermakers because they all play a significant and valued part in the economy.
But while youth appear to be accepting the skill trades as a career choice, the challenge lies in changing both the public's perception and for the job market to keep up.
Sarah Watts-Rynard is the executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, a non-profit organization that connects Canada's apprenticeship community.