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By Louise A. Legault
 

Last fall, there were 268,000 unfilled jobs in Canada. In the manufacturing sector alone, more than 20,000 positions remain empty. Nearly 50 per cent of Canadian manufacturers are experiencing labour shortages today, and by 2016, Canada will have 660,000 unskilled workers and 1.3 million skilled jobs sitting vacant

Meanwhile, Canadian unemployment sits at around seven per cent, with youth unemployment doubling that figure — a stark predicament that has a lingering effect on both youth and the economy.

These numbers represent an industry — and a country — undergoing a time of unprecedented change to its workforce makeup. We have people without jobs and jobs without people — a situation to be intensified in the coming years by an aging population.

“It’s time we all wake up to the reality that our future prosperity is at stake and that high-paying jobs demand a highly skilled workforce,” says CME President & CEO Jayson Myers.

Skilled is the operative word. Graduates today aren’t entering the “real world” with the same kinds of tangible skills they used to. Sons and daughters sought for taking over the family-run business are pursuing alternative career paths. Youth are often ill- or under-exposed to manufacturing-related options, and are taken out of shop classes in high school.

“What we are doing now isn’t working,” says Myers. “It will take time to repair and refocus our education and training systems to ensure we are developing a workforce with the essential and technical skills and practical experience required by modern industry.”

Retooling the trades

While the issue may stem from causes as early on in life as childhood, the education system plays a significant role in bridging the gap between unemployment and a productive profession.

It’s all about changing the attitudes toward trades, says CEO of the Ontario College of Trades, Bob Guthrie. “Trades are not a default option or one reserved for those who have no other choice. They afford great opportunities for well-paid employment with far less student debt, and the ability to move into managerial positions, small businesses or employment with regulatory bodies,” he adds. As the first regulatory body of its kind in Canada, the OCT will regulate 157 trades in Ontario starting April 8, 2013, in hopes of raising the status of trades.

Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, agrees the messaging is important. “It’s not easy to change your tale after a few decades of ­telling young people university is the golden route to a good job,” she admits.

While enrolment in trades schools is climbing, with total registration jumping from 281,000 in 2005 to 382,731 five years later, the completion rate sits at about 50 per cent. According to Watts-Rynard, recruiting employers to take on apprentices is a challenge, and upon hearing about the skills shortage, she is always quick to ask companies how many apprentices they train. Nineteen per cent of Canadian companies participate in apprenticeship training —far below countries like Switzerland, Germany, the UK and Australia, where it is part of the culture.

For college students who do make it to graduation, 83 to 95 per cent (100 per cent in certain programs) find ­employment within six months. Many of these students are university graduates who have attended college to get an edge in the labour market.

“Colleges are generally more employment-focused and have closer ties with the community and industry,” says Michele Clarke, director of government relations and policy research at the Association of Canadian Community Colleges (ACCC).

Clarke says ACCC wants to ensure every Canadian has the advanced skills required in our modern economy and is targeting First Nations students, persons with disabilities, as well as the “NEET” demographic (young people aged 15–29 who are neither employed nor in education or training) — ­estimated at 1 million.

Some programs in parts of the country are ahead of the curve in preparing students with the skills and experience necessary for success in today’s industrial sectors.

One program in Quebec has seen the creation of 46 technology transfer centres at the college level. Called CCTTs (centre collégial de transfert technologique), they create bridges between companies and educational institutions — especially in Quebec’s resource sector, but also in areas like aerospace, optics, robotics, composites, and wind power.

“The centres provide technical support, training and applied research to SMEs; they offer students opportunities to connect with local employers and further hone their skills,” says Claire Boulé, general coordinator of Réseau TransTech — the organization that brings together all 46 centres. “Teachers, on the other hand, return to class with greater knowledge of the needs of the industry.”

Between 2011–2012, the CCTTs worked with some 3,600 clients — 65 per cent of which were SMEs. Local partnerships like these — connecting industry with post-secondary institutions — are bridging the gap between what employers want and what students and job seekers have. At a national level, there are now 387 technology transfer centres in 524 areas of research.

The federal government has recognized the need for investing in skills training to incent prospective and existing employees to develop the right tools needed to succeed in the sector.

In the 2013 federal budget, the government included an investment of $300 million per year allocated in Canada Job Grants.The federal government and the provinces will each match employer investments in skills training for new and existing employees up to $5,000 per worker. Commitments, like this, ensure industry is armed with the resources it needs to continue to expand its local labour force.

Businesses are doing their part, too, to encourage joint efforts in workplace training and development. However, some cannot wait any longer to ­address their needs. They’re turning to the ­immigration system for expertise ­unavailable locally, and others are expanding outside Canada.

Rethinking outsourcing

Companies are doing all they can to grow the labour pool here at home by ­investing heavily in training and new automated processes, ­working closely with trade schools and ­educational institutions, discussing solutions with policymakers and other members of industry.

But in a growing number of ­professions and in more regions of Canada, especially outside the three largest cities, companies have no choice but to rely on workers from other jurisdictions to maintain and grow their operations and continue to support their broad supply chains. With the high level of unfilled manufacturing jobs across Canada today, immigration and relocation will be significant sources for both skilled and unskilled labour if the economy is to expand.

While not the optimal choice for Canadian companies, any outsourcing in Canada is a result of businesses unable to find enough skilled workers, forcing them to import skills Canadians don’t have.

“In certain areas of our business — our skilled and ‘unskilled’ trades roles — we’re finding it more difficult to find those skills and the labour market requires us to go overseas or outside Canada to find the right individual,” says Paul Taylor, human resources director for All Weather Windows (AWW) — Canada’s largest privately-owned manufacturer of energy efficient windows and doors. “There is no need to go overseas if they’re here and available.”

And even if the right individual is in the country, often they’re located in another province and unwilling to relocate. In Alberta, where AWW has a large plant, there is a 4.5 per cent unemployment rate and Taylor says it’s difficult to convince potential workers to move to the province.

“We’re looking to hire a plant manager in our Edmonton location, and the manufacturing industry in Alberta isn’t huge — it’s largely driven by heavy resources — so it’s unlikely we’re going to find somebody in Alberta who could come into our large production facility with the right experience.”

Taylor says AWW has tried to recruit from Ontario — where individuals are more likely to have a better skillset match — but generally, Ontarians aren’t interested in moving to Alberta. “For one, people believe it’s still the ‘Wild West’” he says. “The weather can be cold, and I’m getting the sense many are waiting for things to turn around in Ontario.”

Leadership will make all the difference

While our workforce challenges are well known, the tangible solutions to the complexity of issues at hand are not always so readily available. From business and labour organizations, industry, education and training systems to all levels of government and individuals, demonstrating leadership will be the difference between overcoming the challenge and succumbing to it.

Whether it’s raising the exposure or status of manufacturing-related programs and career options to better local partnerships to encouraging our children to explore careers in the trades, we all have a role to play in focusing on what we can do to improve and prepare our own workforce — and upcoming workforce — to be armed with the skills and expertise Canada needs.

In an industry that pays $1.84 billion a week in salaries and employs 1.85 million Canadians, bridging the skills gap is an urgent priority.

“We can no longer take it for granted that labour market challenges will solve themselves or assume others outside the country will close the skills gap for us,” concludes CME’s Myers. “Canadians can no longer be complacent about our labour market challenges.

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