Canadian Contractor

Generation Lost: Where are the new, young, skilled trade workers?

Is the shortage of new young tradespeople impacting your growth plans?


March 9, 2016
By John Bleasby
John Bleasby

Across North America, growth in the home building and renovation industry is threatened by an on-going shortage of skilled trades workers, and it’s been going on for years. At a recent forum in the United States, John Courson, president and CEO of the Home Builders Institute recognised that while the problem is obvious, the solutions require more than the industry simply complaining to itself about it. Courson suggested that the issue needs the attention and engagement of the general media and government officials at various levels. Basically, the industry is failing to appeal to an entire generation.

What goes around, comes around
The labour shortage is magnified during a downturn in the economy. Typically it’s the younger members of the work force who are let go as companies downsize. When the economy and demand picks up again, those young workers have moved on, leaving a vacuum. The experienced workers who held their jobs get progressively older, thus the generation gap is created. It’s not a pretty picture for the future. In fact, over 90% of U.S. builders surveyed feel that labour shortages are preventing them from expanding their businesses.

Labour shortages then find themselves filtering down into the home industry in other ways, impacting for example the availability, and therefore the affordability, of housing. High prices due to housing shortages obviously force many first-time buyers out the market.

Somewhere along the line, the instinct for boys and girls to build stuff gets lost

Somewhere along the line, the instinct for boys and girls to build stuff gets lost

What happened to the child’s instinctive love for building stuff?
What’s known is that today’s young people are not seeking work in the skilled construction trades in large numbers. In a world dominated by technology, many simply feel their prospects for work at good wages will result from a university or college degree followed by a career in technology, or at least something white collar. Tara Sinclair, chief economist at Indeed.com, feels that the pressure to get a college or university degree is mis-guided for many young students. She feels young people don’t explore other options that might in fact be better fits for them.

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The building trades suffer from many other misconceptions, including social acceptance. Today’s culture tends to denigrate careers in the trades, aided and abetted by an education system that by and large is focussed on preparing students for college and university.

legos_wiki2Long-standing prejudices need to be addressed
Building trade work is also regarded by many as back-breaking, physical work, which is of course mis-leading. Safety regulations and new construction technologies have advanced considerably, not only allowing women to work alongside men (another bug-a-boo that needs discussion), but allowing all workers to enjoy long, rewarding careers. Physical work? Yes, but not endangering to one’s health by any means.

Yet modern construction is filled with innovation, both in materials, techniques, and technology. The wages are good, often higher than those found in the cubicle-lock of a tech job. Building something needs to be marketed by everyone in the industry as something ‘cool’. It’s a matter of perception and attitude.

Apprenticeship and training programmes are helping in Canada; however the education system needs to do more. Not everyone can or should go to university, yet at the same time, high school grads need to find their own way as adults, and that means finding work. The building trades seem like a good fit, if the industry itself can get the message across.

We’d like to know what you think:
Do you have trouble finding young workers to fill skilled trade positions in your company?
Where do you find the best young recruits?
Is the shortage of new young tradespeople impacting your growth plans?

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8 Comments » for Generation Lost: Where are the new, young, skilled trade workers?
  1. Wally Boonstra says:

    Our firm has no trouble finding young people who want to work in the trades- unfortunately, The Ontario College of Trades has undermined the apprenticeship system- a small firm cannot employ 4 journeymen to 1 apprentice-makes it impossible to operate- I have 4 young men awaiting an apprenticeship.

  2. Gene R Overton says:

    The word I get from young people today is that the trades are not worth it any more. Pay is not high enough. Too many government entities make trade life and contracting hell. Inconsistency of work. Little of no benefits, no pension. I tell young people to do anything else they can before enter the trades. Best job is a government job where you can union lazy about, have a ton of free days off, and get a fat pension at the end of it. (you don’t even need training, schooling, or a degree to be a Gov fat cat)

  3. Derek says:

    As a local deck builder, it is very tough to find workers that would like to learn a job and then ACTUALLY work. I find the challenge is unrealistic expectations, and possibly on both sides (employee-employer). I try to encourage that it is a rewarding job and it can support a lifestyle. We have looks of work and have to turn down jobs because we cannot grow enough to match the work output.

  4. Andreas Herrmann says:

    I do not attend to stand on somebody’s feet, but this issue can’t be solved with better education programs only (even it is urgent), this problem starts already in the childhood, perhaps kids should be raised from the parents and not in an “industrial daycare”, they need to have exercise, play in the bush etc., and learn to protect themselves like in the animal world too. Parenting is the key for our next generation!

    I agree, the safety regulations is an other hurdle, or better a hideous joke! We had recently some work to do on a residential project where a safety inspector showed up, unfortunately his concentration was on hardhats and CSA approved shoes and so on, but what’s with all the lumber laying around and in the building with nails and screws sticking out in all directions? How about the unprotected rebars which stands a half a meter out of the concrete retaining wall beside the main entrance?
    Would we really need all this safety equipment if a work area would be clean?

  5. Barry says:

    Two years ago when I posted an ad for staff I would get anywhere between 20-30 responses within a couple of days. Fast forward to this year and 2015 … now we typically get a mere handful. I got 3 responses to the last ad and we are paying better than most, providing full benefits & vehicle … there simply isn’t the pool of prospective employees out there. One of those 3 is from the UK and is trying to get a visa but without success so far. The other two are local and I’ve hired one of them and may well hire the other one if given the option … but he has several employers to chose from.
    Historically this region of BC relied heavily on foreign workers on 1 or 2 year visas to fill positions in the nearby ski resort. Now that those visas are far harder to come by and regulations for hiring foreign workers are tougher for the resort employers they are offering more perks and money than before which is further reducing the pool to pick from. Right now I am forced to slow growth and in some occasions say no or defer work because we simply don’t have the resources to continue to grow. On a positive side it makes it easier to say no to the projects we really wouldn’t want any way 😉
    Also related is that the cost of property is so high now that the few rental places that are available are beyond the reach of many and landlords can be so picky. One of my new staff is going to stay with me simply because he could not find anywhere else to live.

  6. Marten says:

    Not so sure I agree with this statement. There are people getting into the trades all the time. There seems to be work for them. I have no way of knowing if there are enough or not. It is easy to ready stats but if there is no demand for building and renovations there is no need for more people as well. Our changing economy will be interesting as baby boomers retire. Will there be enough money for renovations?. I see lots of people that are financially not ready or close too ready for retirement. I think that will be a bigger issue. And now with the Ontario government taxing even more it will be harder to get people to spend their money.

  7. Mark Mitchell says:

    There are 2 huge obstacles in Ontario to attracting young people to the trades, and/or construction work. One is frost, which limits and dictates when work can start or proceed, which usually means construction workers face layoffs in winter, and long hours in the summer. Not what young people are looking for. The other is excessive regulation and government control. Allowing agencies like OCOT to prevent a father from teaching his children the family trade, and preventing anyone from being a helper for a few months without being a signed-up apprentice have limited opportunities in all trades. Those that oppose this kind of govt control over their lives (like me) have completely given up passing on their skills to the next generation.

  8. Tim wills says:

    I agree it is hard to find good young people to teach and share my 17 years of residential building knowledge. But I also find that the newer generation is not as willing to do the “grunt or green horn” work. They expect to be up the work ladder right away. They don’t want to stick out the beginning stages of lugging, cleaning, driving nails. Plus they don’t seem to take the extra steps to show they want to learn more. I guess I am trying to say I don’t see the “work ethic” with this generation as I showed and saw in others 17 years ago. They don’t want to work hard to get ahead. They just expect to get things handed to them. Like I have a company truck. I drive around in my own vechicle using it for work for years. I never complained and for that I got rewarded with company wheels. I hear it all the time now, complaining about having to drive 30-45 min to get to work.

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