Canada is experiencing a crisis in the skilled trades. Amid record-high job vacancies in sectors like manufacturing, alongside the number of Canadians nearing retirement outnumbering young people entering the working world, the demand for a new generation of skilled trades workers is soaring. Additionally, Canada has one of the most ambitious climate goals in the world. Over the next decade, millions of workers are going to be impacted as the country moves towards a net-zero economy, requiring workforces to adapt and equip themselves with the skills required to meet these targets. Provinces have taken action to address this shortage. For instance, Ontario unveiled a mandatory technological education credit for high school students while Alberta is investing in skilled trades training for women.
While these responses are a positive move, discussions of industry needs for skilled labour often assume that the only thing holding back manufacturing, agriculture, or construction businesses is workers having the skills they need. This assumption unfortunately ignores much wider problems.
In this blog post, we will highlight findings from our current clean growth research at PLACE to dive deeper into how lack of awareness and lack of infrastructure are impacting workers and how these factors must be considered when addressing the skilled labour shortage for clean growth opportunities in Canada.
Lack of Awareness
Many individuals have either never considered the trades as an option or are not receptive to the idea of apprenticeship or technical education. Why is this? From our research, awareness of the skilled trades and the opportunities available is a key issue for bolstering the talent pipeline.
Let’s use the food and beverage manufacturing industry as an example. Most Canadians are not aware of it, but this industry is the second-largest manufacturing industry by production and the largest by employment. Almost 1 in 8 jobs in Canada are connected to food and beverage manufacturing. Despite its position in the Canadian economy, recent research suggests that the industry is short an estimated 20% of its full workforce and that there will be 65,000 open job vacancies by 2025. Plant-based protein manufacturing alone is projected to create 17,000 new positions by 2035 according to research from Protein Industries Canada. Filling these vacancies is not just a matter of skills training, but Canadians are simply not aware of the opportunities in food manufacturing or the great potential for growth within these occupations even though 55% of all industry workers do not have a post-secondary education.
For the zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) manufacturing industry, awareness is limited by stigmas surrounding the sector. One common and deeply held belief is that trades college is less “respectable” than university attendance, that trades careers are back-breaking menial work in a dirty and sometimes dangerous environment, providing little intellectual stimulation, unstable employment, or that they’re simply not for women. This outdated perception of the industry is far from the truth, but over time has led to reduced enrollment in skilled trades training, and a general lack of awareness about what working as a skilled tradesperson in the ZEV and battery manufacturing industry is like.
In reality, the trades are an increasingly high-tech industry that is a fast-track to employment and full of opportunities. Robotics, artificial intelligence, computer simulators, advanced tools, and new technologies are transforming these careers in exciting ways that should receive more attention.
To offset the pro-university attitudes of parents and schoolteachers, and to highlight the positive reality of skills trades roles, students need to be exposed to the variety of opportunities available. In Windsor, Ontario, Workforce WindsorEssex has joined forces with area school boards and industry to run “Manufacturing Day” aimed at sharing technology and career opportunities in modern manufacturing with high school and elementary students. In 2022, more than 700 local students toured at least one of 17 manufacturers in Windsor in an attempt to connect with the future workforce and take charge of manufacturing’s public image.
Lack of Infrastructure
In some regions, the number of skilled workers isn’t so much the issue, but more the fact that the infrastructure is not in place to support them and their families.
For instance, some workers are unable to get to their workplace. ZEV and battery manufacturing plants are, more often than not, outside of the town centre with workers required to travel a distance to start their shift. For many, this reliance on some form of transportation presents a challenge compounded by the lack of public transport infrastructure.
In some areas there might be a bus that goes out to manufacturing plants, but often does not accommodate for the irregular and unsociable hours of shift workers. Alternatively, there may be no public transport at all. While some businesses have offered a shuttle bus to ensure workers are able to get to work, many workers in auto manufacturing hubs have no choice but to invest in a private vehicle or risk losing their jobs. Where possible, workers have clubbed together to jointly buy a car, sharing the costs in order to get to their shifts.
Transportation infrastructure is an essential component of the economy, powering businesses and connecting workers to their jobs. But in many long-established auto manufacturing hubs, such as Windsor and London, Ontario, the lack of accessible public transport is a huge oversight and limitation for existing workers and attracting new talent.
Similar issues exist for agriculture and agrifood manufacturing as rural communities already face greater infrastructural gaps than urban communities. Lack of access to public transportation requires the use of private transportation to both farms and ingredient processing facilities. These workers then need to find housing, schools, and transportation nearby. This challenging search is often then made worse by a lack of access to childcare, particularly in rural and remote communities. One example of this is plant-based protein manufacturing, where factories from Roquette Canada and AGT Food and Ingredients are being built closer to rural communities that supply crops, but these smaller towns and cities often do not have access to the same level of infrastructure as places like Winnipeg or Regina. Access to high-speed broadband (which is traditionally taken for granted across Canada) is quite often not available or unreliable in more rural communities. Lack of access to the internet impedes retraining opportunities and restricts awareness of opportunities in an increasingly digital economy.
A lack of skilled workers is not just about available skills training or job opportunities, but the feasibility of being able to get to work, to find a home, and to sustain their family life. The fundamental infrastructure to support these workers to work and to live needs to be put in place if skilled workers are to be maintained and attracted to realize clean growth opportunities.
Thinking Beyond ‘Build It and They Will Come’
For many Canadian businesses, attracting workers needs to be more than the idea of “build it and they will come.” Concerted effort and attention are required from not only businesses, but the communities they operate in, to understand how to support prospective workers and to make the job opportunities more extensively known. The full potential of ZEV and PBP industries driving Canada’s clean economy will only be realized by connecting the dots and addressing these factors.
Indeed, there are some innovative ideas coming from smaller communities and regions across Canada to attract skilled labour (such as the Alberta Advantage Immigration Pilot and specifically its Rural Renewal Stream where communities work with local employers to attract, recruit and retain newcomers by sharing information on settlement supports and job opportunities available). Yet, since challenges may differ based on region or sector, more work and research need to be undertaken to improve our understanding about how best to support and meet the needs of skilled workers in other clean growth opportunities in Canada, such as mass timber in remote communities in British Columbia for mass timber projects or critical mineral product in northern Ontario and Quebec. This place-based work is necessary to ensure communities can be included in, and benefit from, clean growth opportunities.