September 12, 2023

The stigma of the trades ends with colleges and institutes

By Denise Amyot, President and CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada 

First published in Education for Employment Magazine, Fall 2023.

By 2028, over 700,000 skilled trades people in Canada will retire. That’s what a 2021 RBC Thought Leadership report (Powell & Richardson, 2021) revealed. It also said that one of the main challenges facing the sector is the continued underrepresentation of women and immigrants. For the future of the sector, the challenges are significant. So are the opportunities.  

Skilled trades workers build and maintain things like homes, schools, hospitals, roads, and other vital infrastructure. Without them, our economy would come to a standstill. Despite the need, the number of working-age apprenticeship certificate holders is decreasing. According to the most recent census data, those figures have either stagnated or decreased by up to 10% between 2016 and 2021.  

The trend presents an ominous outlook for the future of the sector and urgent action is required to combat it. The good news is we are seeing new government investments to recruit new skilled workers. The bad news is the sector continues to be challenged by associated stigma, misconceptions, and limitations on access. 

Challenging perceptions of earnings 

In the skilled trades, a journeyperson refers to an individual who has passed their exam and received a certificate of qualification from their provincial or territorial apprenticeship authority. One can become a journeyperson either through apprenticeship training or by taking the exam without having completed a formal apprenticeship. The latter is referred to as a trade qualifier. 

While there are many different pathways to a career in trades, formal apprenticeship training can improve employment outcomes. On average, those who complete formal training report higher earnings than trade qualifiers. That’s what a 2021 report from the Education Policy Research Initiative and the Labour Market Information Council (Finnie, Dubois, & Miyairi, 2021) revealed. 

Comparing earnings, the report found that the average salary for those in the trades started at $62,000 in the first year after certification. Further, the report found that those who complete formal apprenticeship training earned nearly 10% more than trade qualifiers in the first year after certification. The report also suggests that journeypersons who complete apprenticeship training likely have better connections to formal and informal professional networks and find better-paying jobs more easily than trade qualifiers. 

Similar data from Statistics Canada also shows that journeypersons in some construction-related fields, such as powerline technicians, crane operators, and industrial instrumentation and control technicians, can earn upwards of $100,000 per year. 

Experts in hands-on learning 

Apprenticeships are work-integrated learning opportunities that combine on-the-job training with classroom learning. They are valuable experiences for both students entering the trades and for employers. Apprenticeships support employers in recruiting new talent and ensure that students graduate with the skills employers need.  

Pre-apprenticeship programs prepare students to enter an apprenticeship, develop their job skills and trade readiness, and eventually find work as apprentices. The pathway helps address labour shortages in the trades by giving students a low-stakes opportunity to discover a potential career. 

As experts in hands-on learning, colleges and institutes offer over 300 pre-apprenticeship programs in more than 20 skilled trades. And, over 80 of those programs are designed to support groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the trades.   

For example, Nunavut Arctic College offers five pre-apprenticeship programs designed to set students on a path to careers in trades like housing maintenance, carpentry, and heating systems mechanics. The multi-disciplinary approach equips learners with not only technical knowledge and skills, but also helps to boost their confidence, which is important for success.  

At George Brown College, theWomen Transitioning to Trades and Employment program supports women and gender non-binary, trans, and two-spirit people looking for stable employment in trades and construction-related fields. The program is designed to increase the number of people from under-represented groups entering and finding success in the trades. 

Colleges and institutes also regularly host interactive opportunities for high-school students to learn how to navigate training opportunities, identify the skills they’ll need to succeed, and gain a deeper understanding of how to start on a path to success.  

These are just a few examples of the types of high-quality learning that prepares people for promising careers in the trades.   

Strengthening interest and career passion 

Three years ago, in partnership with the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) launched a program to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in the skilled trades – such as women, Indigenous people, newcomers, people with disabilities and youth – and contribute to their success.   

The program, Unlocking Inclusive Pre-Apprenticeship Pathways, helped those facing barriers to education access tailored training designed to support skills development, applied learning opportunities and the pursuit of a fulfilling career. We gathered data, conducted interviews, and developed a suite of resources – including an environmental scan, a pre-apprenticeship program inventory, a diversity and inclusion tool, and more – to make an impact across the sector.  

Of 84 participants who successfully completed the program, 77% expressed an interest in pursuing careers in trades-related fields, and 60% expressed a desire to complete an apprenticeship.  

These results highlight how formal training programs can strengthen passions for trades, especially among those who are traditionally underrepresented in the sector. If we want to build a sustainable future, we need more plumbers, boilermakers, heavy equipment operators, and welders that reflect the diversity of our communities.  

The future of the sector 

We know there is currently a gap between trades employers and apprentices. It can be difficult for employers to recruit and retain young workers, time invested in training can often negatively impact profitability, and placements can be difficult for eager apprentices to find. As our needs and preferences change in this space, we need to find solutions to these challenges.   

As the national voice of colleges and institutes, we bring colleges and institutes together through national programs and projects to develop solutions to economic and social challenges like those we are currently seeing in the trades. That includes providing wage subsidies that help students find jobs, developing new microcredentials and innovative teaching methods, supporting newcomers in the labour market, and much more. 

Career Launcher Apprenticeships, for example, provides financial incentives and other resources to small and medium-sized employers in construction and manufacturing to help them hire new apprentices. Through the program, employers get incentives to recruit, hire, and onboard new apprentices, support to navigate the apprenticeships certification systems across Canada, and access to talent to grow their businesses. The program also helps increase diversity in the trades by incentivizing employers to hire apprentices from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the sector and providing resources to support them. 

As a pan-Canadian network of skills providers, colleges and institutes make resources like these readily available to communities and employers across the country. In fact, with nearly 700 campuses, our network is located within 50km of over 95% of Canadians and over 86% of Indigenous people. 

A career in the skilled trades is rewarding, well paid, and involves highly-skilled work and specialized knowledge – not to mention the opportunity to own your own business. We must do better at challenging perceptions about skills training and skilled careers like trades. They are vital to each and every one of our communities.  

As leaders in high-quality skills-based learning, colleges and institutes are part of the solution.