The skills for our success

Why we need to convince young people that becoming a tradesperson isn’t just a ‘consolation job.’

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Australian academic Phillip Toner understands the value of tradespeople—he studies them at work and raised one at home. He completed a PhD on the role of the manufacturing industry in economic development and now holds a senior researcher position at the University of Western Sydney’s Centre of Industry and Innovation Studies. But it was when his own son pursued an apprenticeship he saw the training system in action. “He really didn’t have interest in going to university, but he had a good idea he’d like to be an electrical apprentice,” says Toner. Toner studied the difficulties in promoting skilled labourers as integral contributor’s to a country’s economy; his son’s decision suggests a change of attitude might be taking place. Thanks to two decades of reforms to Australia’s education system, and government partnerships with businesses who hire tradespeople, apprentices now make up about 4% of the workforce, and the country has one of the top-five highest labour-productivity growth rates in the OECD.

Toner, who has conducte studies for Labour Canada and the OECD, says Canada is well-positioned to make similar improvements. Skilled labour is one of the elements needed to make Canada a more innovative economy, according to Toner and a host of other experts. We can’t change the fact that Canada is dependent on its resource exports, but we can build better pipelines, superior machines and more efficient buildings. And while we often focus on university researchers striving for the next big idea or companies pushing for the next big patent, we also need people who can take these ideas and turn them into real things. That’s what makes tradespeople so important to Canada’s growth. The country could follow Australia’s lead and invest in a new wave of skilled tradespeople through government initiatives, education and the reshaping of our perceptions of what having a “good job” really means. Because it’s not enough to have the idea. We must build it.

Not long ago, the future of Australia’s skilled trades looked bleak.“During the 1990s, there was a steep decline in trades training and apprenticeships,” explains Toner. The collapse was caused by a confluence of factors. There was a recession. There was increased interest in post-secondary university programs. And there was the privatization of public utilities like water, electricity, gas and some transport. “These big public facilities had done a lot of skilled labour training,” says Toner. “But once the bloody things get privatized, the managers get short-term contracts that are designed to cut costs. After two or three years, they get huge bonuses, but they’ve effectively stuffed the company because there’s no R&D, capital investment or training.” The breaking point came when these firms realized they’d cut their pipeline of skilled labourers off at the source. The workforce was greying, and too few companies were investing in the trainee programs that would find and groom the next generation of talent. The federal government saw this collapse and overhauled the apprenticeship system that fed into the country’s skilled labour market. It invested in pre-apprenticeship courses with the aim of making apprenticeship accessible to students, and giving students the skills to wow potential employers. “They give participants a taste of what the industry is like and weed out those who aren’t serious, but students also come out of these programs knowing quite a lot about their specialty,” says Toner, whose son benefited from one of the courses.

The government then began to encourage prospective workers to enter the skilled-labour market later in life, abolishing in 1992 the age restriction that had mandated only those under the age of 25 could participate in these learning programs. “This opened up a whole new pool of suitable applicants,” says Toner. In 1998, Australia’s New Apprenticeship system incorporated trades training into a single, nationally organized and recognized system with government-run vocational education centres, or VETs. The VETs emphasized the skills that tradespeople would need to compete in the new millennium, like an understanding of IT and analytics. They were also practically free.

And it worked. The number of Australians in apprenticeships doubled from 136,000 in 1995 to over 275,000 in 2000. One-third of the new trainees were over 25, and female participation grew from 13% to 30%.

Sen. Kim Carr, Australia’s minister for innovation, industry, science and research, says that for Australia, the development of skilled trades and the pressure to compete internationally have been parallel forces. He says that along with investing in trades training, the government has made a 43% increase in funding for science, and research and innovation. That filters down to create opportunities for skilled workers who make these new ideas profitable for their companies. “The tradespeople have to be working on projects that are competitive, exciting and innovative, or there’s no motivation to pursue labour as a career,” Carr says.

Like Australia in the ’90s, Canada is right on the cusp of a major skilled-labour shortage that has only just started to cause problems as the first of the boomers begin to retire. One Canadian Federation of Independent Business study found that 34% of companies feel a “shortage of skilled labour” most limits the future success of their business. Another 38% said their business had already missed opportunities because of it. The reason for this shortage comes down partly to a matter of values: in Canada, entry into the skilled trades is too often seen as a fall-back plan for students who aren’t “smart enough” to go to university. Some experts, such as Paul Cappon of the Canadian Council on Learning, point to a disinterest in the trades as one of the factors causing male education to lag behind that of females in classrooms nationwide. The same bias is blamed for a collapse of trades in the United States, where 450,000 job vacancies in trades, transportation and utilities exist alongside an unemployment rate of 9.8% (among those aged 25 to 35). Mike Rowe, an advocate for American investment in trades and the host of Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs, recently said the elevation of university education “to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labelled ‘alternative’” all but guarantees this disparity. Rowe swapped his hard hat and spattered coveralls for a suit and tie to offer testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel,” he said.

To solve these problems back in Canada, some groups think the efforts to encourage skilled labour education need to begin earlier. “Young students need to have interactive experiences that introduce them not only to some theoretical aspects, but give them the chance to try to build a brick wall, or wire a circuit board,” says Shaun Thorson, CEO of Skills Canada. His organization runs youth outreach programs to try to change perceptions of what trades are really about. “One of the shortfalls right now is that a lot of young people don’t appreciate the complexities of skilled trades,” he says.

There is evidence of interest in the trades among some Canadian young people. A Canuck contingent last month attended WorldSkills London 2011, a competition in England where close to 1,000 people vied to demonstrate their mastery of everything from carpentry to offset printing. But we’ve not yet achieved the cultural shift that Australia has spent the past decade focused on. Toner suggests that ideally, this transformation in values would mirror the world’s most inspired skilled-working nation: Germany. “The German apprenticeship system is the best in the world,” Toner says. Germany has a strong industrial base, and many manufacturers are still family owned or managed, so a reliance on trades has become part of the country’s identity. Since the people are committed to a culture of industry, they are forced to be more innovative in their production processes and materials to compete with emerging markets.

Some of these strategies are being employed in Canada. Companies like Steel giant ArcelorMittal Dofasco have been championing such reforms for years. In 2002, a Conference Board of Canada report held Dofasco up for its ability to “create clear and easily accessible training paths into the skilled trades.” Today, the company continues to have one of the largest apprenticeship programs in Ontario. “It just makes sense to invest a little more time and energy into getting a higher level of technical proficiency, because our equipment is big, complex and interesting,” says Graham Browne, vice-president of HR and general admission. Like Toner in Australia, Browne believes that advanced manufacturing processes and specialized skills training will help Canada “move up the value chain” and position our manufacturing industry to best understand emerging technologies.

Still, when asked whether the company worries about a skilled labour shortage as more boomers retire, Browne is clear: “All the time.” The company is betting on apprenticeships for some relief, he says, “but with the demographic wave that manufacturing is riding, the demand will outstrip our ability to groom talent. That will challenge to the whole Canadian economy.”

In Australia, a federal government initiative championed the major reforms to education, and business incentives for hiring skilled labourers, whereas much of Canada’s investment happens at a provincial level. It may take a stronger, nationwide program to expose the opportunities in skilled labour. Canadian colleges and the efforts of groups like Skills Canada can help to communicate these opportunities and the value of this work, but if Canadians hope to emulate the Germans’ value and pride in their skilled workers, the push needed to start at a young age, and may also need to be overseen as national initiatives.

And that opportunity starts now. “We talk a lot about having skilled doctors and nurses to support the aging boomers, but we also need skilled people who will build those facilities,” says Thorson. Today, Canada’s skilled labour force may be under our radar, existing behind the scenes and quietly creating the products, tools and energy that we use every day, but, as Browne reflects, “we will sure miss them when they are gone.”

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