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We must end the stigma around skilled trades to prepare for the jobs of the future

By Ryan Mallough

Published in the Toronto Star on February 6, 2020.

Often, when we hear “labour shortage,” we immediately jump to rural or northern Ontario. Smaller, remote communities with fewer people far from the big city.

While it’s true that those communities are in significant need of workers, small and medium-sized businesses in urban centres like Toronto are equally as likely to report that they’re having trouble finding the employees they need.

We are hearing about the labour shortage across all sectors, from trucking companies at a loss for drivers, to flooring retailers looking for installers, to restaurants looking for servers and waitstaff.

The issue is particularly acute in the construction sector — problematic when new housing, transit lines and sewage and water infrastructure are major city priorities for the new decade.

One GTA construction business owner told us he has $40/hour positions he can’t fill.

Toronto needs more skilled workers. It needs them now, and it’s going to need them more and more as we progress into the next decade.

The immigration system will no doubt play a major role; however it needs to be retooled for today’s labour needs.

Ontario has strong demand for workers not only in construction, but in transportation, agriculture and personal services. However the process and paperwork involved in recruiting abroad can be so burdensome and expensive that it’s not worth it. In fact, the process is so onerous, it received a CFIB Paperweight Award — which highlights “bureaucratic nightmares” — just last week.

CFIB has long advocated for an “Introduction to Canada Visa” — a program that would create a pathway toward permanent residency for temporary foreign workers at all skill levels, bringing more potential staff into the workforce. Under the program, temporary foreign workers would work with an employer for a minimum of two years as a defined step toward permanent residency.

While the immigration system can help address the labour shortage, especially in the near term, to achieve long-term sustainability we must look to the education system.

One thing the provincial government could do is emphasize work-integrated learning in the classroom, not only in colleges and universities but also at the high school level, where 53 per cent of small-business owners report being dissatisfied with the level of employment preparedness among students.

No one knows what skills are needed in the workplace better than those doing the hiring. Integrating community businesses into the classroom to help oversee — and participate in — hands-on experience for students will expose youth to new skills and career pathways.

Bringing local expertise into the classroom will also help connect employers with potential hires down the road, and perhaps help change existing concerns employers have around general motivation and attitudes among youth.

Last year I spoke to a Grade 10 civics/careers class at a GTA high school and asked the students if anyone was considering college or a trade. Not a single hand went up.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to go to university, but it seemed like other options never crossed their minds.

It’s not a “today’s youth” problem, either. I was in the exact same boat at home and at school when I was thinking about my next steps. The trades were simply not part of any conversation.

It won’t be enough to put labour market information or salary statistics into the hands of students and parents. There needs to be a real culture change around the way we talk about the trades.

Fortunately, the Ontario government is taking action to address the issue.

In mid-January, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton announced a new advertising campaign as part of a broader provincial initiative to “end the stigma” around skilled trades. The campaign not only tries to build interest among students considering their career options, but also targets the misconceptions.

It’s an excellent start. The trades taboo needs to be busted.

It shouldn’t stop at high school. Many university classrooms — especially those outside of the hard sciences — lack any connection between the skills and material taught and their practical application in the workforce.

Finally, there is the cost of training. Small-business owners report that it costs nearly double to train a new hire with no experience versus a new hire who has some. Because a lot of small-business training happens informally and outside the classroom setting, it’s often not recognized by existing training grants and tax credits. We strongly encourage government at all levels to pitch in, introducing programs such as training tax credits or EI rebates that have the flexibility employers are looking for in helping cover training costs.

Toronto faces several challenges over the next 10 years. The labour shortage is a complex one. If governments work together, we can come out of 2030 all the stronger, with a labour force well-positioned to take on the challenges in the decade to come.

February 6, 2020

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