As a high school student strong in math and science, Amy Spiers took what seemed like the natural next step after graduation and earned a degree in geomatics engineering.
But after 12 years in the industry, Spiers craved something more creative and practical, which led her to take up a carpentry apprenticeship.
“I’ve always loved building things,” said Spiers, now 37 and in her third year at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary.
Spiers is one of a growing number of people in Canada signing up for apprenticeships amid persistent labor shortages in many skilled trades.
After falling during the pandemic, the number of people signing up for apprenticeships has now rebounded and is at its highest level since 2014, according to the latest available data from Statistics Canada.
In 2022, 81,141 Canadians registered in an apprenticeship program, an increase of approximately 12% from 2021.
Growing interest in trades is good news for industries such as construction And manufacturing who have struggled in recent years to find qualified workers, even if the increase in registrations has not yet translated into an increase in the number of certified craftsmen.
Although all provinces and territories saw a slight increase in registrations, “it’s Alberta, Quebec and Ontario that are leading this charge,” said Graham Ziegler, who heads the Canadian Center for Statistics. education at Statistics Canada.
The situation is a little different in each province.
Quebec, for example, saw most of its growth come from enrollments in programs for carpenters and electricians, while Alberta saw most of its growth come from apprentice electricians, plumbers, boiler fitters, pipefitters and heavy equipment mechanics.
The average employment income of a Trade Red Seal in Canada is $111,500, according to a recent report of the non-profit Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, although earnings vary considerably depending on the specific type of trade.
Industrial electricians, for example, earn about $182,200 a year, while hairstylists and barbers earn about $44,700, according to the report.
Growing interest in various types of trades is evident in the halls and classrooms of SAIT, one of the largest post-secondary apprenticeship training institutions in the country.
SAIT has seen a nearly 20% increase in its number of apprentices over the past two years, from 5,494 for the 2021/2022 school year to 6,541 so far this year.
Officials expect interest to continue to grow and are adding an additional 1,000 apprenticeship slots for the next school year to meet anticipated demand.
“It’s a good thing,” said Jim Szautner, dean of learning at SAIT.
“It was very well known that people in the trades were getting older and they would get older and retire…so it’s very refreshing to see new people coming in.”
An aging workforce and rapid construction create opportunities
Certified tradespeople are indeed an aging sector of the workforce, said Statistics Canada’s Ziegler. The number of traders aged 55 or over increased between the last two censuses in 2016 and 2021, while the number of young people fell, he said.
“All of this coincides with an increase in vacancies for certified tradespeople, which almost doubled between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2023,” he said.
“So there are definitely some challenges, but I think there is also an opportunity for those who are considering a career in the skilled trades.”
The opportunity created by this demographic transition is part of what attracted Eric Corbin to the professions.
Corbin, who is also enrolled in SAIT’s carpentry program, had previously worked at a ski resort but was frustrated with the amount of money he was making. He wanted a career with a long-term future.
“I knew (we were) going to lose a lot of older tradespeople, and now is the best time to learn from them and hopefully accept their jobs in the future,” Corbin said , 33 Years.
“I knew it was the best place to be.”
Still, Kevin Lee, CEO of the Canadian Home Builders Association, said the current surge in people signing up for apprenticeships won’t be enough.
The existing labor shortage in this sector is expected to worsen over the coming decade. About 20 percent of construction workers are expected to withdraw over the next ten years, during which the federal government also intends to double the pace of housing construction.
“It will take some time to emerge from the current situation,” said Lee, who believes that targeted immigration to attract skilled workers must also be part of the solution.
Certifications still lagging behind
Another issue is that while the number of Canadians enrolling in apprenticeship programs is increasing, the number of people certified in the trades remains below pre-COVID-19 levels.
This is partly due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, when closed worksites made it difficult for apprentices to complete their programmes.
It also reflects a broader trend: The number of people who enroll in an apprenticeship program has historically been far higher than the number of people who end up getting certified in the trades.
The average completion rate for men in the 15 largest apprenticeship programs in Canada was 47 percent in 2021, according to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum. For women, it was 34 percent.
For some people and some positions, this may not matter. For example, Lee noted that a person can have a successful career in framing without necessarily becoming a certified carpenter.
For others, it is. In most provinces, for example, electricians must be certified to practice.
Emily Arrowsmith, director of research and programs at the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, said certification often also results in better pay and more opportunities for advancement. So that’s something his organization tries to encourage as much as possible.
She says one way to narrow the gap between registrations and certifications is to make professions more inclusive. Women, for example, may take an apprenticeship but leave before completing their degree if they feel isolated or unwanted in the workplace, she said.
Arrowsmith said work was ongoing United Brotherhood of Carpenters and the British Columbia Center for Women in the Trades is part of an industry-wide initiative to make trades more welcoming – a move it says will help trades recruit and retain workers in the long term.
Spiers, the apprentice carpenter, said she supported anything that could help people from different backgrounds understand each other and work better together.
A more pragmatic approach could also prove useful, she said, referring to a federal project pilot project which offered women scholarships to complete their certification. The pilot project ended last year.
“It would be nice to have that back,” she said.