Opinion: Demand for workers in skilled trades and sciences is going unmet

Filling the gap demands tapping into a wider, underrepresented talent pool and removing barriers to entry for students with less financial support

At current count, there are nearly a million unfilled positions in Canada, many of which are in the skilled trades. This gap is creating pressures for companies as they look to recruit talent, though the brunt of this situation has yet to come.

According to a 2021 report by the Royal Bank of Canada, Canada’s workforce will experience a shortage of 10,000 Red Seal trades over the next five years, while 700,000 skilled tradespeople are expected to retire by 2028. Beyond the skilled trades, numerous other sciences, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers are already in high demand and expected to grow, including technicians, programmers, developers and engineers.

Solving a systematic national-scale crisis is no small task. It requires a co-ordinated approach from all stakeholders to create long-term talent sustainability. It demands innovative thinking, challenging outdated mindsets, removing stigmas and stereotypes, and tapping into a wider, underrepresented talent pool to mend the gap.

Youth education is an important starting point. Without adequate exposure to STEM, young people are less likely to develop critical skills, discover a lifelong passion or learn about future career opportunities. Research confirms that youth advocacy, engagement and programming is creating positive change in attitudes and behaviours toward STEM, while providing education and career pathways to in-demand employment.

High schools, colleges, universities and trade schools play a critical role in setting up for long-term success. Career counsellors can be an important link between students and finding the right opportunities. Post-secondary institutions must graduate students well prepared for the workforce with programming tailored to provide students with knowledge for the future as technology rapidly changes. Their network can also be helpful in updating the skills of the workforce as demands rise for digital and soft skills among journeypersons.

Equally important are bursaries, scholarships and endowments, especially those that support STEM programs. The most desirable courses incur some of the highest costs, creating a barrier to entry for students with less financial support. These opportunities help offset the cost of tuition and tools that many programs require, remove barriers, as well as serve as incentive for others.

It is up to employers to create competitive and meaningful job opportunities for the skilled workforce. This includes market-competitive pay, comprehensive benefits packages as well as flexible work-life balance, allowing employees to maintain a high quality of life while raising a family and contributing to economic growth.

Employers must also commit to upskilling the workforce by providing training — either in-house or through partnerships with outside organizations and schools — and career advancement opportunities. Beyond an employment destination, companies can make a difference through sustaining youth STEM programming and partnering with schools to offer bursaries and financial support to replenish the workforce.

Everyone has a role, and we can all work together to challenge stereotypes and create an inclusive environment where everyone feels safe and welcome — especially as it relates to women, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities and those from underserved communities who are underrepresented in the skilled trades.

Ultimately, a well-educated STEM workforce is a significant contributor to maintaining Canada’s competitiveness in the global economy.

Al Cyr is business representative, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) Northwest District 250. Jennifer Flanagan is CEO, Actua. Dr. Tom Roemer is vice president, academic, British Columbia Institute of Technology. David Primrose is president, Finning Canada.

Read the column in The Province.