We Need More People in the Skilled Trades

For decades, we’ve been hearing about the shortage of people entering the skilled trades, and it seems like the problem is getting worse, not better. Projected shortages are getting larger, and the reason is that the trades supposedly have an image problem. I don’t think it is that simple, and better marketing of the opportunities in the trades is not going to fix the shortage.

The Trades Shortage By the Numbers

There are lots of estimates of the shortage of workers in the trades. The Ontario government says that over 100,000 new skilled tradespeople will be needed in the province’s construction industry alone, as it tries to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031. [https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/thunder-bay-skilled-trades-training-1.6993029. Across the country, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum estimates that 163,000 new, fully certified tradespeople will be required by 2025, which is only a year away.

The federal and provincial/territorial governments are all pushing out programs, incentives, tax credits and grants to address the problem. Most of these initiatives target one of three areas: raising awareness of the great opportunities in the trades; employer incentives to hire apprentices, and; education and training programs, often targeted at getting under-represented groups into the trades. If you look at the public pronouncements and press releases, they all seem to be working but we still have a shortage. [https://trades.ontariocolleges.ca/discover/major-labour-shortage-means-huge-demand-for-skilled-trades-and-technology-workers/].

It’s a Marketing Problem

The common refrain is that despite all the grants and incentives, people just don’t want to go into the trades because it is seen as a crappy place to work. For the last 50 years, every young person in North America has been told to go to university so they can have a better life. The only thing wrong with this messaging is that it worked too well, and now a university degree is believed to be the only route to prosperity and happiness. It was absurd 50 years ago and is even more absurd today, but like an irrelevant monarch, the residue of the advice is still around today. 

Trades work has been one of the many casualties of this advice. Life in the trades has, for several decades, been effectively characterized as “nasty, brutish and short”, to borrow Thomas Hobbes’ famous line, in comparison to the life of a university grad. One would only consider the trades as a booby prize if university was out of reach intellectually or financially. Thankfully, we have begun to correct this misperception. 

Life is Better in the Trades

Governments, industry groups and many public colleges have been promoting the trades quite effectively in recent years. We are gradually coming around to the idea that there really are great opportunities when one starts as an apprentice. A person isn’t condemned to die on the tools. They can go into a wide range of different jobs, from sales and project management to digital transformation and business ownership. These campaigns have been so effective that parents and some high school guidance counsellors now provide young people with a much more accurate picture of a career in the trades, including how the hopes of university graduates often don’t work out.

So the shortage of people entering, and staying, in the trades is no longer a marketing problem. The real challenge is that the pathway into the trades has been neglected for so long that it is difficult to navigate even for those who do want to take it. There are three main problems on the apprenticeship pathway. I’ll briefly address one of those below, and will cover the others in future posts.

Matching the Supply of Apprentices With Demand in a Local Economy

One of the problems with the huge numbers of apprentices required at a provincial or national level is that we don’t think about how this plays out in a specific city or region. If Ontario needs 100,000 tradespeople in construction, most colleges will open pre-apprenticeship programs and take as many students as they can. And the students will come, because they hear the same message about the terrible need for tradespeople, and they think there’s opportunity there. But the numbers get a bit wonky when we fail to match the actual demand for apprentices in a local economy with the supply coming out of colleges. In some cases, colleges are producing over 200 pre-apprentice graduates annually in each construction trade, and they release them onto the labour market in 2-3 batches per year. Yet the number of entry-level positions in that region is often less than 50. This is a recipe for disappointment, and there is a better way.

At Trade Smart College, we start our student recruitment process by finding out how many entry-level jobs we can secure. And we don’t admit a student unless we have an apprenticeship position for them. This is by no means a job guarantee. We don’t expect every student to pass our diploma, or to meet the requirements of their practicum employer. But at least we have an idea of how many jobs are available, in which trades, in the local area, right now. That’s a lot of qualifiers, and it makes the recruitment and admissions process more difficult. But our students are paying us to get them ready for an apprenticeship. We don’t feel it is right to prepare them for jobs that don’t exist.


There is no doubt that we need more people to start, and to succeed, in the trades. Our economy, locally, provincially, and nationally depends on it. We have largely cracked the marketing problem, and most people know that there are great careers in the trades that rival, and in many cases outpace, the careers available with a university degree. But there are still problems on the apprenticeship pathway, and we must try to match local levels of supply and demand for apprentices. Otherwise, the shortage will continue.

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