There’s a great future in the trades

Image credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic
Image credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic

By Dr. Larry Rosia, president and CEO

There is a great scene in the 1967 film classic The Graduate where a family friend corners the main character, Ben (Dustin Hoffman), at a party and offers this advice: “There’s a great future in plastics.”

Movie buffs will tell you such advice was meant to signify everything uncool to a 21-year-old like Ben, who just graduated from university.

If The Graduate were being made today, a similarly “uncool” piece of advice would be this: There’s a great future in the trades.

A new and revealing study by 3M Canada indicates that despite thinking highly of skilled trades and the professionals who work in them, 76 per cent of Canadians say they would never pursue a skilled trade for themselves.

This is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that tradespeople are not only in huge demand across so many vital industry sectors, but that they are also highly employable—something evident not only in Canada but in many other countries as well. Even the respondents to the study acknowledge this; 92 per cent believe “there is a lot of opportunity in skilled trades.”

What’s more, tradespeople can earn very attractive salaries.

For example, pipefitters and heavy-duty equipment technicians with four years’ certification had a median income of more than $100,000 in 2018, according to data from ImmigCanada, an immigration consulting firm. As well, skilled and qualified electricians in Canada can easily earn between $80,000 and $90,000 in a year—more than twice the median income for Canadians.

Again, an overwhelming number of those responding to 3M’s survey must have some idea of the quality of pay for tradespeople. Eighty-one per cent of respondents believe they would earn as much money in a skilled trade as they would in a career that requires a degree from a traditional four-year university or college.

But there are other benefits to pursuing a trades career. Some tradespeople go on to own their own businesses and pursue other entrepreneurial ventures.

So, what will it take to take to get more Canadians—those just graduating high school and those who have been in the workforce for several years—to actively commit to a career in the trades?

It is no secret that skilled tradespeople are in high demand right now. In Saskatchewan alone, the top in-demand skilled trades are: automotive service technician, boilermaker, bricklayer, carpenter, cook, hairstylist, refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic, sheet metal worker and steamfitter/ pipefitter and welder, according to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.

The shortage of skilled tradespeople is not going away anytime soon. According to the Government of Canada, approximately 700,000 skilled trades workers are expected to retire between 2019 and 2028.

I believe polytechnics are key to helping fill the talent pipeline.

Offering hands-on training that industry needs and wants is one of the things that differentiates polytechnics such as Saskatchewan Polytechnic from other institutes of higher education. When it comes to the trades specifically, Sask Polytech provides the in-school portion of apprenticeship training for 20 trades. In fact, the institution offers training for nearly all the in-demand skilled trades listed by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.

At Sask Polytech, students are trained by industry professionals and our trades curriculum is developed and designed in consultation with industry experts. Also, our trades training facilities are innovative spaces with specialized equipment that encourage learners to work in multi-disciplinary teams.

Recruiting tradespeople is critical to the future of Canada’s economy and our future prosperity.

Education is one way to recruit new learners. By this I mean educating both students and high school guidance counselors, so they understand that lucrative and rewarding trades careers exist for young people.

Another way is through programs like Sask Polytech’s Women in Trades and Technology (WITT) program, which has seen an increasing number of women joining the trades and making their way onto building sites and shops across Canada for over 30 years.

There are also other programs at Sask Polytech to encourage under-represented groups including women, Indigenous peoples, newcomers, people with disabilities and youth to explore opportunities and start careers in the trades to better support a skilled, inclusive, certified and productive workforce.

In addition, Sask Polytech’s School of Continuing Education offers a number of Industry & Trade courses designed for those in the workforce who want to upskill or reskill.

While polytechnics are important, however, they are only part of the solution.

As Terry Bowman, Manufacturing and Supply Chain leader at 3M Canada, points out, businesses also have a role to play.

“It is imperative Canadian organizations provide equitable access to STEM education to passionate young Canadians interested in pursuing a skilled trade,” he says.

It also helps when businesses step up to sponsor apprentices or partner with post-secondary institutions on work-integrated learning to offer opportunities to learn about a career first-hand. For example, 30 high school students from across Saskatchewan took part in an in-person agricultural boot camp last December through a partnership with Canada Equipment Dealers Foundation, Sask Polytech, Sun West School Division and the Western Equipment Dealers Association.

Imagine if every business across Saskatchewan and western Canada that employs tradespeople committed to similar initiatives to foster interest in the trades.

There would be several benefits. Companies could highlight what they have to offer while establishing relationships they could carry forward as students and apprentices continue their education journey. This could open pathways into the labour market which may otherwise not have existed or been accessible.

While this approach would not immediately fix the shortage of skilled tradespeople, it would certainly put a big dent in it. And it would go a long way to showing Canadians of all ages that there is, indeed, a great future in the trades.

Published August 2022