Canadian Contractor

By Remi Ryel and Debbie De Sousa   

Securing the future: What a career in the trades really looks like

Canadian Contractor Trades & Hiring editor pick editor's pick

We’re all feeling the pinch. As our baby boomer employees start transitioning into retirement, we’re wondering who, exactly, is going to fill those work boots. And while that pinch is being felt across the skilled trade industry, construction is particularly challenged.

Just like the old saying goes about doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result – the solution to a labour shortage involves taking a different approach…or several. It can look like recruiting from trade programs, sponsoring new Canadians, and developing employee skill sets (AKA “upskilling”). It’s about building a pipeline of diverse talent and encouraging a whole new generation of skilled workers to the construction trades.

There’s no shortage of initiatives to help support this goal, programs and funding backed by industry and government as a way to get more people interested in the skilled trades. And it’s working to some extent, but to really move the needle, we need a multi-faceted approach, and it starts with a fresh perspective of what a career in construction looks like.

It’s not just about digging dirt or swinging a hammer

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There are lots of misconceptions of what the skilled trades entail – hands-on, second rate, dangerous and dirty work. It’s been a hard label for the industry to overcome. The reality is, many construction companies today offer competitive salaries, benefits, and flexible hours, not to mention the range of career opportunities, mentorship and training available. Think about all the jobs needed to keep a construction site moving that don’t involve hard labour. There’s the mechanics needed to fix equipment, electricians working on new batteries, machine operators, and the drivers that keep things moving. In the rental business there are branch managers and site supervisors and head office roles like HR and marketing.

Job seekers aren’t often aware of the rental industry, despite its stable and recession-resistant nature and anticipated growth. The Canadian Rental Association projects the rental industry will reach $7.5 billion by 2027, with an expected growth at a rate of 3.4 to 3.6 per cent per year in the medium term, but most individuals have little to no idea of the opportunities available.

The construction career path has evolved significantly even over the last 10 years, thanks to new and emerging technology. Technology is now built into the way we operate on and off the jobsite, which means a career path in construction can even be part of the growing STEM industry. Construction isn’t traditionally encouraged as a career aspiration for kids. We have a visibility issue. Grassroots initiatives like high school co-op programs or college outreach can be time-consuming, but they can make a big difference in reaching young people who are choosing the next step in their future.

Think outside the box to combat challenges, present and future 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to combating labour shortages. If you want to help build a future pipeline of workers, you need to think about your short, medium and long-term strategies. Sponsoring or partnering with local organizations is one way to bring visibility to the non-traditional roles available in construction and the skilled trades industry in general. This could involve internships, apprenticeship programs, scholarships and other training that can help to inspire the next generation of workers.

Although construction is still a male-dominated industry, we are starting to see an increase in workforce diversity. If we want to encourage the younger generation to pursue a career in construction, representation is important – they want to see workers who look like them and have experiences they can relate to. One organization leading the charge in this area is Jill of All Trades, providing hands-on experience and an engaging learning environment to young women as a way to introduce them to a possible career in the trades. Others, like Women in Steel Toes, are actively working to support women already in the industry, providing a platform for women in construction to share their stories and experiences, good and bad.

While we can expect Canadians to fill a portion of the skilled trade jobs of the future, many will still go unfilled. Recognizing that we need world-class talent to build a stronger Canada for generations to come, companies are starting to recruit abroad. Hiring skilled foreign workers helps tap into a wider pool of talent. In the past few years we have had great success bringing in skilled mechanics from all over the world, including New Zealand, Mexico, and Zambia. Many of these individuals are also open to moving to places where we struggle to fill positions, such as smaller towns.

Same old problem, new solutions

It’s time to shake things up, think outside the box and take a different approach to solving our labour problems. Any hiring challenges you’ve already experienced in the last few years are going to intensify in the future. Attracting a more diverse workforce and tapping into a wider pool of talent is key to addressing your future skills and labour shortages.

Ultimately, people want to contribute to something worthwhile. They want to do well, be compensated, and treated fairly, and go home safely to their families. For a long time, we’ve been telling young people that university is more valued than the skilled trades. It’s time to change that narrative. Governments across Canada are investing millions to encourage people to pursue careers in the construction industry and skilled trades. Meanwhile, we in the construction industry need to speak up and show them what’s possible.

Remi Ryel is Director of People and Culture at Cooper Equipment Rentals. Debbie De Sousa is Talent Acquisition Manager at Cooper Equipment Rentals. 

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