Serious labour shortages in local construction

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With the controversy surrounding the sex ed component of the revised provincial school curriculum introduced by the Ontario Government, other aspects of the new approach have been overlooked, not least the return to an emphasis on improved skilled trades opportunities, as part of the new vision for ‘Education that Works for You.’ The government has run into criticism from many quarters on issues such as class sizes and sex education, but there is little doubt that the sections of the new policy aiming to increase opportunities for training in the traditional trades are of equal importance.

The new “Back to Basics” theme, according to Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, “will modernize Ontario’s classrooms and provide students with more learning opportunities to prepare them for success in post-secondary education, apprenticeship and training, and the workforce”.

This will come as some relief to local businesses which are finding it increasingly difficult to find and keep skilled workers. One local construction company told me that they could hire twice as many workers as they currently have, such is the amount of work available in this area. But those workers are not out there. Another very successful local company is looking for at least four trained mechanics to maintain their vehicles, again without success.

This is not only a local problem. In a report prepared at the end of last year by the Business Development Bank of Canada, called “Labour Shortage: Here to Stay”, the picture painted is not hopeful. During 2018 in Ontario, 48% of construction companies found it difficult to hire new workers. The number in the retail sector was 54%, and Manufacturing found it hardest of all at 56%. The overall conclusion of the Report was: “Close to 40% of Canadian small and medium-sized businesses are already having difficulty hiring new employees and the situation is getting worse. As our population ages and baby boomers retire, growth in Canada’s labour force is forecast to fall to near zero. We do not expect labour shortages to get better for at least a decade”.

One of the factors leading to these shortages is the lack of training provided by high schools in the province. This is not always the fault of the schools: there has been a marked tendency for parents and students alike to focus on more academic careers than the traditional trades. This may be a status issue, it is certainly not a financial one these days. Electricians, carpenters, plumbers and other tradespeople are well-paid and in increasing demand.

This, however, has added to the problem for school boards. Given the average salary of a high school teacher, it is often far more profitable, financially, for a skilled tradesperson to work in the field, rather than in teaching young people to do their job. Schools have found it very hard to recruit these experienced men and women into teaching, and even harder to keep them there.

The rising costs of insurance coverage has also been a barrier in providing classes in trades for students, as the physical dangers in using much of the equipment involved in those classes can lead to accidents and resulting insurance claims. It is simply cheaper and less problematic for school boards not to run the risk by simply not running the courses.

All of this has a negative knock-on effect on municipal finances. Local construction companies generate a great deal of revenue for municipal coffers. Unlike the bigger companies, like Urbandale, eQuinelle, etc., the local businesses hire local workers, use locally-sourced materials, and the wages, income from sales, etc., accrue in taxes to the local municipality. The fewer projects local companies take on, because of a shortage of workers, the more the larger companies take over and we lose that revenue-generating capacity. In companies like Lockwood Brothers Construction and Westerra Homes, and the many sub-contracting businesses that supply them, we have award-winning and high quality construction projects adding to the economy of the community. The local Home Builders Association is an important part of the North Grenville scene and their success underlines the need to train and equip more young people to follow in their footsteps and maintain a great tradition. The Business Development Bank of Canada lays down the challenges they face.

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