Choosing a skilled trades career

Choosing a skilled trades career

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Contributors:

Judith Kays

As the Nova Scotia economy and population numbers continue to grow, the need for skilled tradespeople in the province is proving to be a real challenge. Even though Nova Scotia's skilled trade sector is one of the highest paid job opportunity sectors in Nova Scotia right now, there’s a significant shortage of apprentices and qualified trade professionals.

Experts say that a combination of factors have produced this shortage of labour: retirements, lack of awareness about the trades, stigma about the kinds of jobs that exist and increased demand for new infrastructure. To solve the issue, industry leaders say there needs to be more education and awareness about choosing a skilled trades career, improved exploration of diverse populations as a workforce pool, and the understanding that everyone has a part to play.

Education is key

There are over 70 trades registered with the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency (NSAA). At any given time, the NSAA has about 7,000 apprentices learning their trade, either at an educational institution like the Nova Scotia Community College, through a trade union-led program, and through on-the-job training.

This post-secondary training teaches the skills and competencies necessary to become a certified tradesperson while learning and getting paid to work. When people think about trade jobs, they usually think about plumbers, carpenters and electricians. There are many more career options that include jobs in one of the four industry sectors that the NSAA oversees in construction, industrial/manufacturing, motive power, and service. A tradesperson could be a boat builder, hairstylist, project manager, cook, or motorcycle mechanic, to name just a few.

Gord Gamble, president of Iron Dog, a mechanical systems service provider, says that the trades sector is still fighting certain stigmas, but that needs to change. “There are many people that believe the best route to good employment is through a university degree,” he says. “I believe that any secondary education is a plus, but people need to know there are a variety of options that lead to great opportunities.”

There are many examples of organizations delivering education and awareness so that people know and understand the benefits of choosing the trades as a career option. The NSAA has targeted initiatives to educate and engage youth and under-represented populations. Employers also understand the importance of education. Gamble says he currently has a grade 11 high school student working with apprentices and red seal technicians. His company also offers financial and employment scholarships to apprentices through NSCC. “We recognize the role that education plays in exposing people to the trades and everyone benefits when we spend time mentoring and guiding students.”

Organizations like the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council, Skills Canada-Nova Scotia and Techsploration all have programs to introduce the trades as a future employment option.

Gamble says there must be greater awareness of the fact that there is a significant shortage of skilled tradespeople that isn’t matching up with the increased demand for apprentices and certified journeypersons.

As well as educating youth, programs are targeting under-represented populations, including women, Indigenous peoples, African Nova Scotians, people with a disability and newcomers to Canada. It only makes sense to tap into a traditionally underutilized and capable workforce.

Diversity opens doors

Along with a diversity of skills for the variety of trade career options, there is a need and great advantage to find a diverse workforce to fill those positions in the labour shortage.

In fact, the NSAA, other industry organizations and employers are finding avenues to attract people to the sector through specialized and unique programming directed at these under-represented groups.

Marjorie Davison, the CEO of the NSAA says there is a commitment to improve diversity and inclusion in the apprenticeship system by raising awareness of, reducing barriers to, and enhancing support for apprenticeship opportunities for people from diverse communities. “We have a number of partners who are helping to promote careers in the skilled trades to not only youth, but to those who have traditionally been under-represented in the trades: women, African Nova Scotians, Aboriginal peoples, persons with a disability and newcomers to Canada,” she says.

As the government of Nova Scotia prepares to launch several large infrastructure projects around the province, they also see the benefits of opening the doors to diversity and inclusion within the trade sector. They have implemented regulations that require 25% of trade hours be done by apprentices, and of that, at least 10% must be done by apprentices from under-represented groups.

Davison says that the NSAA works with employers to develop programs to make requirements like this work. “The welcome mat should be out for everyone, and we know that takes effort,” she says. “We want to help employers provide fair, consistent, and safe work environments that are focused on awareness, compliance, enforcement and procurement standards.” Davison says the NSAA understands the need to embrace diversity and encourage entry into a much wider range of trades to a larger workforce. “People need to see themselves in that job and while we’re making great strides, there’s still work to do.”

Jessica Brison is an Apprentice ‘A’ construction electrician. She started her career as a tow truck driver and then switched gears when she had the opportunity to learn a new trade as an apprentice. While she’s one of very few females on any given job site, she knows she’s in the right place. “I know I can do the job as well as anyone else,” she says. “My boss and co-workers treat me the same as everyone and that’s what makes me accountable and an equal.” Now 28, Brison has accomplished a lot. She will get her Red Seal Journeyperson certification in less than a year, she’s just bought her first house, and most importantly, she loves going to work every day. When asked what advice she would give to someone considering becoming an apprentice, she says “Explore your options and if you want to learn a trade, try it. I have learned so much just working alongside other tradespeople, and remember that hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”

Davison says the NSAA wants to provide a level of comfort for people who choose the trades as a career. “That means a commitment to and accountability for equity and inclusion, reducing any barriers to apprenticeship, and partnering with other organizations to drive change.”

Everyone has a part to play

Brad Smith, chair of the board for the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency and executive director of the Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades Council says that it’s important for everyone to understand that Nova Scotia’s economic growth depends on finding and securing a skilled workforce. “Everyone has to be at the table in order to build the bridge, and they have to stay at the table to find ways to bridge the gaps,” he says. “Twenty years ago, there were two cranes in the city and workers were competing for too few jobs; today, there are over 30 cranes in the city and it’s the employers who are competing to get workers.”

Smith says that the NSAA is dedicated to a horizontal approach of working side by side with government, employers, trade unions and organizations to create transformative change that will address and fix the labour shortage for apprentices and skilled tradespeople in the province.

The NSAA also provides tuition grants to students, and funds bridging programs for employers to hire apprentices. “There are a number of opportunities for the exceptional workforce that’s out there,” Smith says. “We just need everyone to work together. People need to be more open to the variety of career paths in the trades; more students of all ages and all backgrounds, male and female, need to choose the trades; employers need to hire and mentor the apprentices; and government needs to support the various initiatives to make it all happen.”

While the global COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on all industries, including the trades, the effects have been two-fold. There’s been increased interest from people investigating or switching to more stable employment through an apprenticeship program, but it hasn’t been quite enough to keep up with demand.

Trades important to economy and society

Trade professionals play a vital role in the development and future of both small communities and larger cities throughout Nova Scotia. Without welders, carpenters, hair stylists, bricklayers, manufacturers, and automotive service technicians, there would be no economy. As Nova Scotia welcomes many new infrastructure projects, trade professionals will be more and more in demand.

Iron Dog’s Gord Gamble says that the number one impediment to growing his business is the shortage of skilled apprentices for hire. “Our company isn’t alone,” he says. “The economy cannot sustain the growth if we can’t attract and retain people to do the work that needs to be done.”

This labour shortage has a very direct impact on the Nova Scotia economy. Industries that include construction, manufacturing and hospitality are having trouble finding workers, and that will affect how quickly the economy can fully recover.

Marjorie Davison says the NSAA’s business plan priorities include attracting skilled trades talent, supporting the journey to certification by focusing on the experience of both the apprentice and the employer, and fostering a culture of workplace learning so that young apprentices, female apprentices, and those from under-represented groups choose the trades as a viable career path. The NSAA’s Apprenticeship START program and funding encourages employers to register, employ apprentices and support them as they complete their apprenticeship program.

Davison believes that as things get back to normal and with the strong efforts to attract people to the various programs and trades, there will soon be an upturn in the number of apprentices in Nova Scotia. “People want to feel pride in their work and being a tradesperson gives them that accomplished feeling, as well as the flexibility, stability and wages they deserve and require to build their lives and prosper in Nova Scotia.”

When Jessica Brison tells people that she’s a construction electrician, she usually gets a few raised eyebrows. “I’m proud to tell people what I do,” she says. “I’m helping to build this province and that’s a great feeling.”

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