As a retirement bomb looms Canada’s need for trained workers rises

Labour | Gregory Beatty

For decades now, population specialists have warned about the demographic time bomb facing Canada as aging Baby Boomers exit the workforce and enter their senior years. No sector of the economy will be unaffected, but the labour shortage is projected to be especially acute in the skilled trades.

How acute?

According to the Ottawa-based industry advocacy group BuildForce Canada, 22 per cent of the country’s current construction workforce is expected to retire by 2030. That’s almost one in four.

It’s a significant concern.

“We’ve started to see it already,” says BuildForce Canada executive director Bill Ferreira. “It began during COVID, and as Baby Boomers continue to exit the workforce many of the shortages we face now are only going to grow if we can’t find ways to backfill for retiring workers.”

Immigration is one backfill strategy being touted. Working with industry and the provinces, the federal government has committed to targeted draws for skilled immigrants to fill specific shortages in different regions of the country. The government also intends to boost immigration to 500,000 people a year by 2025.

Efforts are also underway, says Ferreira, to promote the skilled trades as an attractive career option for Canadian youth.

“That’s a change from the 1980s and early ’90s where a lot of the focus was on getting young people to pursue post-secondary education,” he says. “Now, we are starting to see more focus on training schools and institutes, and that is a direct response to the need for more skilled workers.”

Stigmas & Stereotypes

As technology has revolutionized society over the last few decades, the type of low-grade automotive and home improvement projects that once gave youth (boys mostly, often helping their dads or in shop class) a working knowledge of basic trades has fallen by the wayside.

That’s led to a disconnect between youth and the trades — one that has spawned all sorts to stigmas and stereotypes.

“The skilled trades used to be seen as a dirty job without a lot of education, so if you weren’t really good in school you would go into the trades,” says Janet Uchacz-Hart, executive director of Saskatoon Industry Education Council, which serves as a bridge between business/industry and Saskatoon schools to support education in the skilled trades [see Beyond Shop Class next page].

Traditionally male-dominated, the trades have long suffered from an image problem that limits their potential appeal to a large and growing segment of the workforce.

It’s a perception the industry is working to correct, says Ferreira.

“We need to broaden our reach beyond traditional recruitment channels and look to groups who have been historically underrepresented to ensure they know these are careers they could excel and be welcome in.”

Last September, the federal government announced the Canadian Apprenticeship Service Program. CASP provides $5,000 grants to small-to-medium size companies (up to 499 employees) to create apprenticeship opportunities for young people. Up to two apprentices can be hired per year and the program supports all 39 of Canada’s Red Seal trades — among them plumbers, electricians, crane operators, landscape horticulturists and powerline workers.

Should the apprentice be from an “equity-deserving group” such as women, Indigenous, 2SLGBTQIAP+, disabled and visible minority the grant is $10,000.

The money provides a buffer for employers who must make a major commitment in time and money to train an apprentice, while offering young workers a valuable first step to gaining professional standing as a journeyperson.

To find solutions to the looming labour crisis, industry recognizes it needs to be creative, Ferreira says.

“One idea is to take workers nearing retirement and see if there aren’t ways to keep them in the labour force by changing their day-to-day job description or getting them involved in training as opposed to actually being on the tools. We could also use them to mentor younger workers,” Ferreira says.

Steps are also being taken to promote inclusive values in the workplace, says Ferreira.

“If someone has a bad experience they will tell two friends, and those friends will tell two friends. But the same is true with a good experience,” he says.

“Employers are focused on trying to create the most inclusive environment they can, and dispelling some of the myths that might discourage people from pursuing a career. It’s still early days, but we are starting to see increased awareness around careers in the skilled trades and the benefits those careers can bring,” he says.

What kind of benefits?

Well, for starters, they generally offer a solid income.

“Not only is the work well paying, it can often become a stepping-stone for individuals to own their own business,” says Ferreira. “There are around 360,000 construction businesses across Canada. The vast majority are small, with fewer than four employees, so there’s a high degree of mobility between worker and owner.”

Because of the work’s nature, which is often hand-based in specific locations, the trades would also seem to be somewhat insulated from the impacts of artificial intelligence and automation which are forecast to radically reshape many jobs in the white collar/service sector.

That’s not to say that the skilled trades don’t employ advanced technology.

Prefabricated work, with components being manufactured in a central location then shipped out to jobsites around the world, is one growing trend.

Other technologies will have an impact too, says Ferreira.

“There could be augmented reality glasses for workers to see exactly what they need to build and how they need to build it. The system would then verify that the work was done to specification. There is huge potential to assist the industry to become more efficient.”

Another stereotype that may turn people off the skilled trades is that they are typically associated with more extractive aspects of the economy. Those million-dollar homes in sprawling suburbs (along with mines, refineries, factories and more) aren’t going to build and run themselves, amirite?

But as Canada (and the rest of the world) transitions away from fossil fuels to a green economy, skilled trades will be indispensible, says Ferreira.

“The industry is foundational to that change, not only in renovating homes and buildings to make them more energy efficient and switching out their fuel source to electricity, but also in developing a new power grid to satisfy the increased demand for electricity,” he says.

“It’s a question of awareness, and trying to reach people who historically, for whatever reason, have not seen themselves as part of the industry, to develop that vision where they could actually see themselves working there. That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles, but industry is focussed on creating a more respectful and inclusive environment that would be welcoming to all,” says Ferreira. ■