Calgary

Why this group says we need to talk to more women and girls about going into the trades

Canada has a shortage of skilled trades workers — with a projected need for 167,000 more in the next six years — and a new task force is working on a national strategy to fill that gap with more women.

Canadian Apprenticeship Forum says more female workers could fill labour gap but attitude shift is needed

Women may not be quick to consider careers in the skilled trades, but a recent report shows a growing need for industrial mechanics, welders, carpenters, heavy duty equipment technicians and cooks. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Canada has a shortage of skilled trades workers — with a projected need for 167,000 more in the next six years — and a new task force is working on a national strategy to fill that gap with more women.

Female workers make up just four per cent of skilled trades in jobs such as industrial mechanic, millwright, welder, heavy duty equipment operator, carpenter and steamfitter, says France Daviault, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, which created the task force.

Daviault told the Calgary Eyeopener that getting more women into these high-paying fields may require a shift in thinking.

"Entering the skilled trades isn't talked about, and especially it isn't talked about to young girls or to young women as a viable career opportunity," she said, adding that we need to do a better job of talking to girls about the trades early on, in the school system.

"It's typically been seen as careers that are dirty and that require a lot of physical exertion and all of those image barriers that we have. But with the new technologies that are affecting these trades, there is so much opportunity for women," she said.

Daviault said it's not just the school system that writes off the trades as a viable option. It's also the parents.

"I think what's required is a national strategy around how to make the careers in trades a viable pathway. So it starts with the parents," she said.

"The parents that we've talked to typically see university as the path here in Canada. But we need to get over this thing that the apprenticeship pathway is not a viable post-secondary pathway."

The Women In Trades National Strategy Task Force is made up of about 40 people representing trades, education, government agencies, business, union, employers and labour groups. Together, they're going to come up with a strategy to start changing those minds and get more women into the trades.

Canada has a shortage of skilled trades workers, with a projected need for 167,000 more in the next six years. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Part of that will involve tracking the numbers better.

"I think the general idea that employers and the apprenticeship community is now willing and and participating in identifying targets, and in identifying what they're going to try and do to meet them, is a good first step. We want to celebrate the little successes."

Some of that might address ways of helping women to feel more comfortable in male-dominated workplaces.

"We can recruit women into the sector, but if we can't retain them, that's no good," she said. "It does take a leadership stance to change the environment within the employment industry to really make a conscious effort to make those changes. And we're hoping that through this task force we'll be able to show what works and what needs to be done tangibly."

It starts at school

The task force is going to come up with strategies that will help get them into schools earlier, get talking to girls and young women, and also get parents thinking about other options for their daughters — in many cases, higher-paying careers.

The call for students to enter the trades may sound familiar.

More than a decade ago, a massive construction boom across the province and in the oilsands fired up huge demand for more young people to explore careers such as pipefitter and electrician.

But a few years later, thousands of jobs were lost in the wake of the 2014 oil price crash. The continued downturn may have discouraged kids from entering the trades. 

It's a challenge across North America, says Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist of CIBC World Markets.

"Clearly, it's everywhere — we have a mismatch in the labour market," Tal  told CBC Calgary last March

"We have companies desperately looking for people, not only PhDs and computer engineers, but plumbers and electricians. And we cannot find them. This mismatch is why we have a labour market that is not functioning."

He said many people are getting degrees for jobs that the labour market doesn't need. He believes Canada should follow the lead of countries like Germany and Sweden where students get degrees and are certified in a trade.

"The labour market is changing at the speed of light and the education system is behaving like nothing happened," he said. "We have to rethink the way we educate people and it's not just about computer engineering, it's also about trades."

And about the kind of jobs that women can do.

The Women in Trades task force will present its draft strategy at a national apprenticeship conference in Calgary in May 2020.

With files from Tony Seskus

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