Raise high those pay scales, carpenters
Forget medical school: The new big-money glamour jobs are in the skilled trades
CATHY GULLI | Oct 13, 2006
Mike Holmes is a blue-collar millionaire. He wears dusty brown overalls and a diamond stud in his left ear to work. He only went to high school, but says he knows as much as anybody in the construction industry. "I can wire your house, build your house, design your house, plumb it; I can pretty well do anything," says the 43-year-old divorced father of three. And that's why he's not only rich, but famous. His renovation show, Holmes on Homes, which began in 2003, is seen 42 times a week on Canadian television, besides airing in the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There are Holmes DVDs and apparel, a weekly newspaper column, an upcoming book, and the promise of a "Mighty Mike Holmes" cartoon for kids. A recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about home renos began with him sauntering on stage to the song Solid as a Rock and ended with DeGeneres cooing, "Will you marry me?"
Holmes, in other words, represents the reincarnation of the skilled tradesperson as a rare superhero, one who possesses all the knowledge and power to fix, replace or improve the items most people can only identify as broken. The talents of skilled tradespeople -- who make up the transportation, construction, service and manufacturing sectors in Canada -- are in such demand that these workers are winning the respect, adulation and salaries once reserved only for university-educated, multi-degreed professionals, like doctors and lawyers. "If a doctor is at a party, everyone will go up to them [and say] 'I've got a problem with my shoulder.' Lawyer, same thing, they ask legal advice," says Holmes. "Go to a party and have any contractor on site, and man, they're swarmed."
This cultural shift has many observers pronouncing skilled trades the best career path for Canadian youth contemplating what to do after high school -- and challenging the popular perception that university is the only way to a prosperous future. "This is a golden opportunity to get kids engaged in the industry. Now is the time to do it," says George Gritziotis, executive director of the Construction Sector Council. Across the country, demand for skilled tradespeople is soaring. British Columbia needs workers to build infrastructure for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. Alberta needs workers for the oil sands. Ontario and Quebec need workers for housing and commercial real estate construction. Highway and public facility improvements are back on politicians' agendas. "Crane operators, construction managers, heavy equipment operators, brick layers, supervisors, elevator constructors, carpenters, painters, decorators and tile-setters are occupations [that] will be faced with severe pressures going forward," says Gritziotis. And that's the short list. According to the Conference Board of Canada, the country will lack almost one million workers by 2020, especially those in the building, automotive, steel and iron trades.
The shortage, says Prem Benimadhu, vice-president of the conference board, is due to a few colliding realities. For starters, baby boomers in the trades are set to retire; the percentage of workers 55 or older is higher in the skilled trades than in all other workforce categories combined, according to Statistics Canada data cited in a recent report by the Canadian Council on Learning. Meanwhile, immigration policies today emphasize higher education more than in the past, when many immigrants with trade experience filled the spots. Plus, young people have increasingly opted for university education and professional occupations. The consequence: "Companies will have to pay more to attract people. And when you pay more you are sending a signal to the labour market [to] get into this business," says Benimadhu.
And that's exactly what's happening. "When supply and demand hits, that drives wages up," says Michael Atkinson, president of the Canadian Construction Association. Way up, in fact. Many tradespeople earn around $30 an hour, according to data posted on careers inconstruction.ca. "But on a regular basis, these wages can be much higher," says Gritziotis, and many tradespeople work overtime and enjoy premium employee benefits packages. A heavy-duty mechanic in Fort McMurray can earn $46 hourly; a contractor in Toronto can earn $200,000 annually. "It's fair to say that if you're 25, and you have your apprenticeship, and you're willing to put in time in parts of the country that are heating up, you can make six figures," Gritziotis adds.
Holmes's own construction crews are made up mostly of young people who earn around $1,000 a week. The incentives to join trades abound: "Not only will you make money doing this, but you can fix your own home," says Holmes. Seventy-five per cent of homeowners hire professionals to do renovations, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., and the average project costs approximately $15,000. Over the next decade, predicts Holmes, renos will increase as people improve the cookie-cutter houses popular now. And the work will pick up more, he adds, as new materials are developed to make homes more environmentally friendly, energy efficient and resistant to mould and other contaminants. "It's something that will benefit you forever," he says.
More young people are choosing skilled trades work over office jobs because of the opportunity to be active and outdoors, adds Beverlie Cook, project manager for the Skilled Trades promotional campaign aimed at youth ages 13 to 17, which is a joint initiative of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum and Skills Canada. "There are many young people for whom a desk is death, who want to be out and using both their hands and their head," she says, adding that they find satisfaction in making ideas come to life. "It's good to be able to see the work that you've done," says Mike Holmes Jr., who at 17 has just joined his father's construction crew full-time. "It's a lot more interesting than digging holes every day." And then there's the opportunity for tradespeople to start their own business, become supervisors or take their skills, which are generally recognized interprovincially, across the country as prospects arise. "It's not just a job. It is a career," says Holmes.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares such positive views. According to a series of studies conducted over the last two years by Ipsos Reid on behalf of the Skilled Trades campaign, the majority of Canadian youth say they believe skilled trades are "just jobs," not careers, and that tradespeople are not respected in society or creative thinkers. Instead, the popular belief is that trade work involves a lot of physical labour, and isn't fun or interesting. Cook says many people feel that "skilled trades are for dummies" and are "dirty, dangerous jobs." Parents, youth, educators and guidance counsellors have pushed university as the first choice for students after high school. And it's true, says Herb O'Heron, senior analyst at the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, that "over the last 15 years, the most rapid growth is in jobs that require university education."
That perspective has led governments to favour universities over colleges or vocational schools when it comes to funding, says John Tibbits, president of Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., which has opened a Skilled Trades Centre of Excellence at its Waterloo, Ont., campus. "If you look at the resources and labs that universities have as opposed to the kind of facilities available for trades, it's like chalk and cheese."
And for those students who do pursue trades, employers put up a roadblock: there is a shortage of apprenticeships, which are critical for students who must acquire work experience to receive certification. A study by the Apprenticeship Forum shows that only 18 per cent of employers hire apprentices for fear of wasting time or money on inexperienced workers. In fact, for each dollar invested in an apprentice, employers actually receive a net return of 38 cents. Recognizing that, the federal government announced in its 2006 budget a tax credit for employers who hire apprentices.
"We're starting to get the message across," says Atkinson, who believes that for a long time trades have been unfairly discounted compared to "knowledge economy" occupations. "We've fallen in love with hi-tech, that's the 'new economy,' whereas construction, mining, forestry, fishing is the 'old economy.' " But the two economies are not mutually exclusive, because tradespeople are often integral to creating new infrastructure, he says. The president of the Canadian Council on Learning, Paul Cappon, echoes that: "The issue of skilled workers, and our ability to supply the demand, is going to be the key to that knowledge economy."
For his part, Holmes, who learned his skills from his father, has just set up a charitable organization to offer scholarships and bursaries for youth joining trades. "I want them to learn this business. This is the business of the future," he says. As for his own son, Holmes says, "I could not be happier that my son is following me. I get to teach him everything I know. And he's learning." In fact, to work with his father everyday, Holmes Jr. has a tutor to teach him Grade 12. But he's not worried. "I'm learning a lot more here," he says.
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