Growing up in Thornhill, Ont., David DaCosta learned from a young age two facts about his father, an industrious Portuguese immigrant: he was a sheet metal worker, and he didn’t want his son to be one too. It was hard labour, day after day, year after year. At his parents’ urging, DaCosta attended Ryerson University in Toronto in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in radio and television arts. But he was miserable and eventually quit. Another career had caught his attention—and it was in the skilled trades.
This was different from the body-crushing job his father endured, though. DaCosta, 24, pursued mechatronics at Toronto’s Humber College. “It’s automation,” he explains of the emerging trade, which might be used to build factory lines, robots or even roller coasters. “It combines mechanical and electrical knowledge and programming.” When DaCosta made the switch, his parents supported him because they recognized he’d be much happier. But, he says, “they didn’t really understand it.”
Like DaCosta, many more young Canadians are going to university rather than trade school, often at the behest of others, who still see skilled labour as the work a person does “if you [aren’t] that smart,” says Donavon Elliott, president of Skills Canada. The stigma has long been that these jobs are physically taxing, dirty and dangerous, and in some cases, they still are. Indeed, 184 people were killed in construction in 2011, and another 75 died while working in mining, quarrying and oil wells—these are the most hazardous jobs of all. That makes trades a tough sell to young people who have gotten used to the idea of joining a knowledge economy that revolves around cushy desk jobs and computer work.
But occupational health and safety standards have become the No. 1 priority of employers, Elliott notes, and the money to be made in the trades has skyrocketed. Tradespeople earn upwards of $10,000 more per year than the average Canadian annual salary of $40,000, according to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF). Plumbers in Edmonton take in $56,290, and masons in Toronto earn $51,000, for example. More often than not, says Elliott, after obtaining their provincial designation, “everybody’s making six figures.” Adds Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of CAF, “$50 an hour is not an uncommon wage rate, once you get up into doing some of those highly demanded trades.”
That financial incentive is due to the massive shortage of workers in the skilled trades. And it’s only going to get worse as baby boomers start retiring. By 2031, Canada will be short 2.7 million workers, reports CAF, and this will affect the country’s economic growth, increasing the cost to consumers for services and delaying infrastructure projects, including roads and hospitals. More specifically, within the next decade, Canada will need to fill 319,000 construction jobs, 5,850 in oil and gas, 112,000 in mining and up to 77,150 in automotive.
The situation is getting more troubling as the demand for tradespeople spikes in various provinces—with oil and gas booming in the west, for instance, and offshore drilling and shipbuilding booming in the east. “To deal with heavy demand in the past [was] to say, ‘Well, just go and get people from another part of the country,’ ” explains Watts-Rynard. Now, Canadian companies can’t do that as readily. “That’s where the situation becomes more dire. People are saying, ‘There’s no place to go and get more tradespeople from our traditional sources,’ ” she says.
Which is where DaCosta and his peers come into the picture—the key to this country’s future: “Tradespeople are the ones who are building, maintaining and operating the infrastructure that we all need to live,” says Watts-Rynard. Their importance has become more apparent as their numbers grow more scarce. In this way, for young people joining the trades—either traditional ones such as sheet metal working or new ones such as mechatronics—there is a new-found pride in their job of choice.
DaCosta experienced it first-hand in July, when he travelled to Germany to compete in the WorldSkills International competition. He and his teammate went up against 32 competitors to build a complex assembly line—10 feet wide and five feet high, capable of sorting, capping, flipping and tagging—in four days. They didn’t medal, but DaCosta was thrilled about the challenge. And even better, his parents were there to cheer him on.