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Skills Canada’s Ontario Competition gets the “Wow!” factor

Housing industry notably absent at this showcase of young talent


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May 10, 2018 by John Bleasby

Is the Skills Canada Ontario Competition a big deal? No, it’s a huge deal! Here are numbers to help you understand. Over 2,300 students from the elementary to post-secondary level representing over 40 trades compete in nearly 70 competitions. It’s a noisy, energetic two-day event that nearly overwhelms the one million square foot Toronto Congress Centre.

Numbers alone cannot explain the diversity and complexity of this event, however. In addition to the students in competition, another 20,000 come to cheer, to watch, and to hire. Pretty much anyone with a vested interest in the future of Canada’s skilled work force is there in one form or another:  post-secondary colleges, governmental agencies, certification regulators, safety organizations, trade unions, corporate sponsors, tool suppliers, exhibitors, in-kind benefactors.

Nearly 40 high school teams were entered in the Individual Carpentry competition. Only a hammer, nails, a circular saw and a T square were permitted.

It’s a multi-front competition for the minds of young men and women
And that’s the real point about this competition and ones like it across the country. Canada is experiencing a shortage of skilled trades like never before. Attracting young men and women into the satisfying and often lucrative career opportunities of the trades is of paramount importance for all kinds of industries across Canada. However, the term “skilled trades” has evolved beyond the construction site. It takes in a vast array of careers, everything from computer animation to floristry to culinary arts, to auto repair. Much of the so-called skilled trades have a high technology level, such as robotics, CNC machining and video production.

That’s something the residential housing industry as a whole needs to recognize. New home builders and renovators are facing skilled trade shortages just like other industries.  However, they’re only one small piece of the labour puzzle. In other words, the residential housing industry has to fight it out with all the others who are trying to attract the limited number of available young men and women. For many in the residential housing industry, it’s a matter of survival, let alone maintaining stability or envisioning growth.

Humber College demonstrated how PEX plumbing is assembled, by letting prospective apprentices make their own hula hoop

Residential housing notable by its absence
Given the challenges facing the residential housing industry, it was surprising that there was no representation or participation by the industry at any level at the Skills Canada Ontario Competition. No home building associations —regional, provincial or national — were on hand. None of the largest production home builders were there either. None were sponsors of the event. Yet the carpentry and construction competitions were among the largest in terms of teams participating and spectators watching. Home building and renovation is enormous in terms of national economic clout for workers and government alike. But where is the follow-through by the housing industry? How can the industry hope to attract the builders of the future if industry organizations and builders themselves are completely absent from view?

The Skills Canada concept is getting larger each year
You can’t argue with the success of the Skills Canada concept. The program runs all across the country. Its job is pretty simple: start telling the compelling story of the trades at an early age and keep the pitch going right through post-secondary. And the plan is working. Skills Ontario itself claims a 100 per cent affiliation rate with the provinces Colleges, and 95 per cent rate with Ontario school boards.

However, the competition for skilled workers has been identified by unions too. Many offer their own sophisticated skilled trades training programs, partnering with large scale construction companies ready to welcome the next wave of qualified young people. It’s a quiet competition for talent that the housing industry seems to be missing.

Building a heavy timber pagoda was the project challenge for the two dozen, 2-person carpentry competitors

Residential housing’s absence has been noticed
The disturbing relationship gap between events like Skills Canada and the residential housing and renovation industry is not a good sign for the future of Canada’s home building industry. Ian Howcroft has been the CEO of Skills Ontario for only about three months, but he already recognizes that something should be done. “I think there are probably some opportunities for us to explore and build on,” Howcroft told Canadian Contractor. “I’ve been reaching out to more firms in construction. I would like to see more of them engaged. I would like to see them come out and visit the event. It has that ‘Wow’ factor.”

Skills Canada is a huge program. Does that scare away smaller players?
Of course, the majority of Canadian home builders and contactors have less than 20 employees. They might hire outside third party trades like HVAC, plumbers and electricians, of course, however even those trades are often small businesses themselves — they too need to find their share of new young skilled workers.  There is an intimidation factor that needs to be taken into account, plus the independent and entrepreneurial spirit of individual operators. This is where housing organizations and local economic development departments need to step up.

Winning medals is only part of the fun, but it does matter!

Stepping up at the grass roots level
It would seem that many in the residential housing industry, particular smaller independent operators, have not developed basic hiring links to young labour sources, even at the community college level.  There are many challenges and obstacles to overcome when it comes to taking on a new apprentice in Canada. Many small companies find the commitment daunting. Yet, there are other ways to connect at the local level. Sponsoring a local hockey team is great for company public relations; Why not use that same engagement effort at the local level with high schools and post-secondary colleges?

Making oneself known to the Skills Canada organization in one’s own province through regional events is another. Ian Howcroft supports this idea. “I would like to find ways that we could better tap into smaller businesses and the organizations that represent them,” he told Canadian Contractor. “They might not have the same resources that larger companies have. We need to identify who they are and find out how we can collaborate with them to ensure that they are tapping into opportunities that they may not know about.” It doesn’t have to be on the massive scale of the provincial competition. Skills Canada Ontario alone conducts about 2,000 in-school presentations each year, runs 22 summer camps, and hosts specific conferences for young women and indigenous youth. Partnership opportunities for residential builders and contractors in these types of events are likely available in each province.

It does require the home building and renovation industry to take leap forward, however. Individual companies at the local level and their organizational representatives on the regional, provincial and national level need to be part of the skilled trades promotion effort, and need to follow through with an effective job recruitment initiative. It’s something Canadian Contractor will explore in more detail.

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or by sending an email to:
JBleasby@canadiancontractor.ca

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2 Comments » for Skills Canada’s Ontario Competition gets the “Wow!” factor
  1. Len Rance says:

    Hi John,

    My name is Len Rance and I am the Technical Chair for the Skills competition that just passed for Individual Carpentry. Just to clarify, we had 23 High School students and 12 Post Secondary competing in this category. The gold medal winners will advance on to the National competition June 4th and 5th in Edmonton. I am privileged to be a committee representative this year representing Ontario.
    I was also surprised not to see any representatives from the home building industry as well as the Carpenters union. I have been a proponent of apprenticeship for many years and will continue to do so.

    • John Bleasby says:

      Thank you, Len. The disconnect between the home building industry and the many initiatives to develop a new, younger skilled workforce is a subject we will continue to investigate. It is a critical issue, and the absence of the industry from all levels of youth skills expos and competitions mystifies me and many others.