Tuition-free training in the face of labour shortages

Nils Atuehene knew he wanted to work in the trades when he was in high school, but he had no idea how to get started, so he went to college instead. First, in a law clerk program, then again for police foudations, but he couldn’t see himself pursuing either.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and he lost his job at the airport, he decided to take learning a trade more seriously, still having no idea where to begin when it came to entering the trades until he heard about his pre-apprenticeship program, Hammer Heads, from a friend.

“I saw their life change first hand,” said Atuahene, which encouraged him to enroll too.

The Central Ontario Building Trades, which represents more than 20 construction trade unions, created Hammer Heads to connect under-resourced youth with apprenticeship opportunities. During the 12-week program, participants visit different trade unions across the Greater Toronto Area to learn about them from the experts themselves.

The skilled trades are facing a labour shortage, and by 2025,Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development estimated that 1 in 3 tradespeople will be preparing for retirement.

According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Shortage Trends in Canada report, the country is facing a historical low point in its unemployment-to-job-opening ratio. Dropping from a recent high of 3.2 unemployed people per job opening in 2021, to 1.4 a year later. Meaning that the number of jobs available was almost equal to the number of job seekers, leaving employers with little room to be picky when it came to hiring.

The report shows that construction, a skilled trade, is one of the five leading sectors driving total job openings. For the past several years the rate of new hires compared to job openings has been trending downward. Statistics Canada reported the rate to have decreased from nearly 100 per cent in 2018, to just 32 per cent in 2022, showing that not enough people are applying to be able to fill most of the job openings.

How it works

Preapprenticeship programs are trying to address the job shortage by offering training in the skilled trades, with the promise to help participants find apprenticeships once they’re done. The programs are typically tuition-free, thanks to funding from the provincial and federal governments.

Humber College is just one institution that offers pre-apprenticeship training. They have programs for aspiring electricians, plumbers, welders, millwrights, general machinists and female horticulture technicians.

“An apprenticeship is almost like a college or university program,” said Linton. “But 85 per cent of your learning is actually done on the job.”

To become a certified tradesperson, registered apprentices need to complete two to five years of training. To become an apprentice, the worker must be registered by their employer.

Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development estimates the average age of people entering the trades is 29 years old. Due to the aging workforce in the skilled trades, employers are eager to hire young apprentices.

LISTEN: How tuition-free training is addressing the skilled trades labour shortage

“But then there is sometimes a bit of a gap. Like any of us, [employers] want to hire somebody who has experience already,” said Linton. “That’s the issue. There’s not a lot of experienced people out there.” Pre-apprenticeship programs aim to bridge that gap.

“Any training that you do ahead of being hired by a tradesperson just helps you to get that first job,” he said. “If you did a good job for them. Like, showed up every day, worked hard and learned quickly, then they would register you as an apprentice.”

Apprentices typically attend in-class training for around eight weeks at a college or trade union after their first year of working. A student that has completed a pre-apprenticeship program that is recognized by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, may be exempt from the first of up to three rounds of in-class training.

Finding and filling work placements depends on student’s attendance and participation throughout their pre-apprenticeship program. Generally, those who complete the training are successful in finding jobs, said Linton.

But attendance is an issue for both employers and instructors. In the trades, showing up is a large part of the job.

The skilled trades shortage

“Sometimes the biggest challenge for young people is that they don’t understand that you have to pay your dues,” said Linton. “There’s a big gap between the expectations of young people and the reality of salaries, work-day attendance and work ethic.”

One factor that could be impacting job vacancies in the skilled trades is wages.

“In two-thirds of industries we have a wage shortage, it’s not a worker shortage, said David MacDonald, a senior economist with The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think tank studying economy policy.

“There are workers who definitely want to work in those industries,” he said. “They just want more than what the job postings are offering/”

In the case of construction, job seekers are looking for at least $29.55 an hour compared to the average posted wage of $27.50 an hour, according to Statistics Canada’s Labour Shortage Trends in Canada report.

In non-union workplaces the hourly wage tends to be a bit lower, said William Linton, project manager of Humber College’s Pathways to the Trades program, a free eight week training program followed by a job placement.

“Employers will pay, but they won’t pay until somebody has proven [themselves],” he said. “I wouldn’t say $27 is kind of on the high side, but probably more realistic would be the low to mid-twenties.”

Being free from student debt, those that have gone through pre-apprenticeship programs will ideally have the freedom to seek out higher paying jobs, said MacDonald. Especially in an industry like construction, where workers currently have the upper hand over employers due to the number of vacancies.

The job placement part of pre-apprenticeship programs is crucial.

People want to get into the trades to find a job and potentially start their own business, but it’s not an easy industry to break into without any experience or personal connections, said Andrew Pariser, vice president of ResCon, an association representing residential construction workers. These challenges are even more present for women, people of colour and people with disabilities.

Pariser was a youth advisor to the provincial government’s Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, and helped create a report that outlines the stigma and barriers to entering the trades and makes recommendations to move forward.

The report identifies barriers as “racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, lack of accommodation measures, wrap-around supports, workplace harassment and bullying.” It also highlights participants in their study calling for mandatory diversity and inclusivity training for employees.

Shade Winter is a second-year carpenter with Local 27, Toronto’s Carpenter’s Union, and has been working in the trades for 17 years. In her workplace, she’s also a foreman; scheduling, supervising and coordinating duties.

Winter knew she wanted to continue her journey in the trades when she emigrated to Canada from Barbados, and joined a pre-apprenticeship program run by BuildingUp, a non-profit construction contractor, to do so. In her cohort of the program, which was meant for people over the age of thirty, Winter was 1 of 3 women. After just a month of being in the program, she was recruited to work by her current employer.

“If the placement isn’t there, then the training’s not as valuable,” said Pariser of pre-apprenticeship programs. “If they’ve got a good record of placement, then you know the training is good because otherwise, employers wouldn’t be taking people out of that program.”

Training providers look at job postings to ensure their students meet the requirements of the market and the needs and expectations of employers, said Pariser. But Ontario doesn’t share enough information about which jobs the province will most need to fill in the future, making it hard for people interested in the trades to know where the most demand is.

“It’s nice to ask youth what they want to do,” he said. “But I think we’re doing a disservice to youth if we’re not also giving them the labour market information that’s attached to the courses they’re taking.”

When most people think of the trades, cabinetmaker, concrete pump operator and craft construction worker are probably not the first jobs that come to mind.

“People might not think about that as much because they don’t see it,” said Pariser. “And so, as a result, there’s higher demand for jobs in those areas, and less demand in a better-known trade like plumbing.”

By focusing on employment as the end goal, the rest of the pieces are more likely to fall into place, said Pariser.

The tuition-free aspect of pre-apprenticeship programs is something that could be adopted in other forms of post-secondary education. Widespread tuition-free programs could allow students to try a variety of professions, build a strong skill set and choose a job in a field they like — all without the risk of accumulating student debt following a path they’re not passionate about, and won’t work in.

“There’s huge value in the try-a-trade model that doesn’t necessarily lead to a job, but understanding what you like or don’t like,” said Pariser. “I think there’s a lot of room for that with programs designed to get people experience.”

Canada has taken the U.S. approach to post-secondary education, said MacDonald, which is “Maximum tuition, maximum student debt,” he said. Instead, we should follow the European model of lower tuition, and in some cases, paying students throughout their studies.

Tuition-free training in the case of pre-apprenticeship programs is “a big step forward,” he said. “Maybe this is a lesson that can be moved on to other areas of critical need like nurses and teachers.”

The Ontario government has been increasing it’s contribution towards the Skills Development Fund, which supports programs connecting jobseekers with the skills they need to succeed.

In March 2022, the provincial government announced it was increasing money for pre-apprenticeship programs by $5 million a year to about $28 million annually. As of September, Ontario’s contributed $560 million to the fund.

The extra cash is meant to encourage employers to hire more apprentices to replace those who will be retiring in the coming years.

Patrick McManus, chair of the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance, points towards Germany’s approach to post-secondary education, where “they treat the skilled trades on par [with college and university], the third option when you’re graduating,” he said.

Stigma around the trades

The Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance formed in 2011 to address regulatory and legislative issues within the skilled trades. But, more recently, the alliance has shifted their focus to the practical side of promoting the trades and helping people through training — what they call “the last mile.”

According to Statistics Canada’s Portrait of Youth in Canada: Data Report, Canadians typically have higher levels of education than those in other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). That includes the European Union, China, the U.S. and many others. Sixty-three per cent of young Canadians have a college or university education compared to the OECD average of 45 per cent.

Completing post-secondary education is a “trend that’s well established,” said MacDonald. “This is the route that most Canadians understand towards higher paying jobs.”

It’s easy to make the decision to go to university or college, said Pariser. “The gold standard is applying to university because it’s a one-stop shop. Everybody knows how to do it, how to find resources,” he said.

Post-secondary institutions benefit from “good visibility, good marketing and good communications,” in a way the skilled trades and apprenticeships can’t because of all the different pathways to entry, said Pariser.

Canadian’s preference for post-secondary education is good for pre-apprenticeship programs delivered by colleges like Humber, but not so much for those delivered by other institutions like unions and non-profits. 

For Atuahene, an ironworker apprentice, the expectation from his African Canadian family was to go to school to be a nurse, doctor or lawyer, he said.

“I had to explain to my parents that the trades are a job,” said Atuahene. “In my family, the trades aren’t really viewed as a career path.”

Pre-apprenticeship training is important and necessary, said McManus. “But it’s only a small part of a much larger answer.”

In Ontario, there’s too much focus on promoting the most popular trades. There are more than 140 skilled trades in Ontario, but many people can probably only name a dozen, said McManus.

Compulsory trades require workers to have completed an apprenticeship and to have earned their Certificate of Qualification by passing a multiple-choice exam before they can work in the field as a certified journeyperson. According to Skilled Trades Ontario there are 23 of them including hairstylists, electricians and crane operators.

On the other hand, there are 121 voluntary trades — including arborists, chefs and general carpenters, and while apprenticeships and certificates of qualification are not required, they’re sometimes still offered.

“What happens is a lot of people filter into trades that they know, and those tend to be the trades that have formal apprenticeships,” said McManus.

While the Ontario government has been focused on promoting compulsory trades, they’ve also been investing in what McManus calls, “core civil infrastructure.” That includes roads, highways, sewers, water mains, subways, railways and residential construction — sectors McManus said tend to not require apprenticeships.

“We’ve had a difficult time attracting into those sectors because of the way that we have promoted and funded the skilled trades,” said McManus. “Most of the tradespeople that we require right now are in the voluntary trades, not in apprenticeable compulsory trades.”

The different construction trades like pipe layer, HVAC worker, tunnel boring machine operator and electrician work together in a similar way to first responders, he said.

“They’re all construction, but they’re all drastically different,” said McManus.

Pre-apprenticeship programs are just a “slice of the pie” of the solution to skilled trades labour shortages, said McManus.