Skilled trades talent shortage is next crisis for Canadian businesses

We’re not pushing people to do work they love. We’re not encouraging them to take pride in their work

Ask any entrepreneur about the biggest challenges facing his business, and they’ll likely say it’s hiring good people. Seasoned executives and sales people are always scarce, but the shortage of traditional skilled trades — cooks, electricians, mechanics and carpenters — is a national problem that shows no sign of easing.

Despite rising unemployment in 2009, a Statistics Canada study that year found 24% of Canadian companies weren’t able to find “the right talent” to fill the jobs available. Of the 10 jobs business owners found hardest to fill, the most serious gap was in trades — ranking ahead of engineers, teachers and nurses.

And don’t count on the Internet to bail us out: studies cited by Skills Canada, a federally supported organization dedicated to trades and apprenticeships, indicate 40% of new jobs in the coming decade will be in skilled trades or technology (think computer animation, network support, etc.). Meanwhile, in guidance offices and family dining rooms, the song remains the same: just 26% of young people aged 13 to 24 plan to consider a career in the skilled trades, with 59% of youths saying their parents have not encouraged them to consider the trades as a career option.

Never mind that a plumber making house calls bills more per hour than you do: Canadians are turning their backs on skilled trades. And as the Baby Boomer generation steps away from the workforce in the next decade or two, experts predict Canada’s skills shortage could reach a million people.

So how do businesses prepare for this crisis? If they are serious about solving the skilled worker shortage, 18-year-old Adrian Schut says, the solution is obvious: Fight for programs, such as co-op work terms, that give young people more hands-on experience in the fields they like. Push back against an education establishment that assumes the best and brightest must go to university. “We’re not pushing people to do work they love,” he says. “We’re not encouraging them to take pride in their work.”

Schut is a recent graduate of Almonte High in Almonte, Ont., just west of Ottawa. He’s one of those caring, gifted students who makes teachers want to crusade on their behalf to ensure they go to the best university and become doctors or engineers. Schut, however, happens to enjoy being outside and working with his hands, and found school an ordeal. “I never sat well in class,” he says. “I’d get bored sitting and listening.”

Growing up on a hobby farm, he learned carpentry skills at an early age. For after-school fun, he took up robotics. In high school, he regularly scored marks in the 90s, even though he often got carried away with the mobile robots he was building and forgot to go to class. In grades 9 and 10, he won medals in international “Skills Olympics” competitions with his built-from-scratch robots.

Last year, Schut returned to skills competitions – this time in carpentry. He rounded up a four-person team that was given two days to turn a pile of materials into a shed with a floor, door, windows, electrical wiring and a shingled roof. His team finished first in Ontario.

Schut’s teachers saw a brilliant future for him. You can imagine their disappointment when he joined a friend’s homebuilding business after graduation. Yet he feels fully satisfied doing the wood work for new homes: “I like making beautiful things,” he says.

Schut hasn’t registered for a formal apprenticeship program to become a certified carpenter. He can’t stomach the idea of sitting in a college classroom. Meantime, he’s picking up his robotics again, for fun: “It’s an opportunity for me to use my mind as well as my hands.” (He’s about to purchase a laser-cutting tool for more precise metalwork.) His goal is to combine his love of building with his passion for robots. “A lot of tool processes could be automated,” he says. He intends to identify the most hazardous tasks in construction — such as working high atop ladders or finishing steep industrial roofs — and build robots to do those jobs.

In Penhold, Alta., just south of Red Deer, another skilled tradesman has even more direct advice for business owners: lead your skilled people better, and you’ll need fewer of them. Brad Hollman, 30, is a welder who bought his father’s company, Falcon Welding, three years ago. With a staff of five, Hollman now runs one of central Alberta’s top structural steel suppliers, competing with firms with twice the staff. To get that kind of productivity, Hollman works with his team at jobsites, teaching them all he knows, reinforcing their work ethic, and encouraging them to learn from each other. (He saves his paperwork for the evenings.)

“It’s hard to find good welders. It’s easy to find a body. It’s harder to find a person who’s worth what they expect to get paid,” Hollman says.

In addition to turning his employees into learners, Hollman pays annual bonuses based on the company’s performance, ensuring his team shares in the profits and productivity improvements they generate. He scolds employers for tolerating workers who take no pride in their work. “You don’t need 100 people to do a job – you need 10 good ones.”

Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship. His column appears weekly in the Financial Post.