Features

Building Canada’s Future

The Coughlin brothers: Adam (left) and Liam (right).

Pursuing a career in the construction and skilled trades 

If you were to talk to the Coughlin brothers, they would say they have no regrets. While their friends were scrambling to get into colleges and university, they were wondering what the fuss was about.

Adam didn’t want to squander his parent’s money on a university degree that he wasn’t committed to and Liam knew for certain he wanted to be a carpenter and cabinetmaker. They found their trades – Adam after a bit of searching and Liam pretty much right out of the gate – and are currently well established in their careers while earning a substantial income. Meanwhile many of their college and university friends are scrambling to find employment and pay their debts. With so much emphasis among parents and educators on the university destination pathway in particular, one has to wonder why more students aren’t choosing the trades as a viable and economical option after they graduate from high school.  

Not the “easy way out” 

For the most part, it isn’t from a lack of coaxing from guidance counsellors from coast to coast to coast. Often counsellors are met with resistance from students and parents when the trades are suggested as a legitimate option for students looking for a career. There is a myth out there that choosing a trade is a form of settling, a way to give up on academics and take the “easy way out.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Construction involves all of the critical academic skills: literacy, numeracy, problem solving, creativity, dexterity, determination and perseverance. Informed counsellors are quick to recognize this perspective. If the construction sector were the “easy way out,” how do you explain the fact that the industry currently employs 1.4 million Canadians and accounts for 7% of Canada’s GDP. The sector is composed of 380,000 firms and maintains and repairs nearly $3 trillion in assets across the country. In fact, construction installation, repair and renovation work totals $239 billion annually. Canadians are builders and the construction industry is an essential part of our lives, our lifestyles and our culture.  

Plus, construction sector workers enjoy a high sense of job satisfaction. It wouldn’t surprise Adam and Liam Coughlin to hear the results of a JobTalks.org survey demonstrated that 64% of tradespeople feel they have “really accomplished something worthwhile” when reflecting on their work. Construction workers feel their work is creative, interesting, challenging and skillful. It is a sector of the economy that allows workers to evolve into their positions, master their trades and earn a very good living.  

And here’s the crux: the construction industry needs workers. According to Bill Ferreira, the executive director of BuildForce Canada, between 2020 and 2029, close to 260,000 people will retire from the construction sector, but only 230,000 new workers are expected to take up those spaces. In addition to this, as the sector grows, the need increases to over 300,000. That means the industry is forecasting a significant worker shortfall in the coming decade.  

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The recruiters 

This is why outfits like Ferreira’s BuildForce Canada and the Canada’s Building Trades Union’s BuildTogether are helping the industry set their sights on active recruitment to fill the coming void. Their target is not only people who are naturally drawn to the trades (aka. young men like the Coughlin brothers) but also women, Indigenous and newcomers to Canada. This is the right time for counsellors to demonstrate to students of all abilities that construction is a pathway that is so sensible in so many ways.  

Why construction?  

Guidance counsellors are trained to see proficiency and aptitude in their students – a skill they use to gently nudge students in the direction of their gifts and talents. Too often that nudging is slighted toward the college and university destination pathways. It’s time to start informing students that they can graduate high school and start earning an income and building their careers right away via the trades. In a perfect world, students destined for the construction industry could leave high school and enter an apprenticeship where they can accumulate hours toward their journeyperson status. They’d be paid along the way with occasional pauses to attend trade school. In fact, 80% of the time they would be getting paid a good hourly wage, thus alleviating the debt load brought on by tuition fees had they chosen college or university as a destination. According to Statistics Canada, the average debt load of a college graduate is just over $14,000 while a university graduate can be in debt by close to $25,000. An apprentice earns while they learn – on the job and in the classroom.  

This is not to say that students should not be encouraged to attend post-secondary programs. However, counsellors would do well to start to recommend programs that will land a student in the construction sector. For example, a student earning a college diploma or certificate in a trade earns almost $60,000 a year withing five years of graduation –
about $2,000 more than students graduating with an undergraduate degree. In light of the recent economic impact of COVID-19 on Canada, Bill Ferreira says, “No industry is pandemic proof but the construction industry has proven, time and again, that it is resilient.” If counsellors want to steer students toward a resilient career, they need look no further than construction.  

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Adam’s story 

Adam Coughlin

Let’s return to the Coughlin brothers for a minute. Adam, the older of the two, says he received no encouragement from his school to pursue the trades despite the fact that he did a full semester co-op placement with a licensed electrician. After graduating high school, he elected to forgo
post-secondary education and work for a year before returning to formal schooling, earning an advanced diploma in business at college. Then came the moment of truth: a candid conversation with his uncle that directed him away from business and toward a career as a millwright. Adam wishes he had talked to his uncle sooner. He says he could have gotten a multi-year head start on his career and earned his journeyperson papers sooner. Nonetheless, as a young man in his early 30s, he is a homeowner and accomplished tradesperson. Today, as a millwright working at Ontario’s Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, Adam is in a trade that earns an average of over $70,000 a year with experienced millwrights earning over (sometimes well over) $100,000 a year. 

Liam’s story 

Liam Coughlin

Meanwhile, Liam knew right away he wanted to pursue a career in construction. Since his parents wanted him to pursue a post-secondary education, Liam enrolled in a full year certificate program in carpentry and cabinetmaking. Within days of finishing his program, he was working for a local cabinetmaking company before joining the carpenters’ union and starting his apprenticeship. Over the course of his apprenticeship, Liam built houses in a subdivision in Norwood, Ontario, eventually completing the requisite number of hours and passing the test to become a Red Seal carpenter. Since then he has been on work crews that have completed concrete form work for buildings on the site of an Ontario mine and, when the pandemic hit, continued working as an essential worker in the construction of a seniors home. For the ten years since he completed his college program (at the age of 19!), Liam has been earning a wage and developed competencies that range from the micro world of cabinetmaking to the macro world of full scale building – skills that have allowed his employers to give him more responsibility on the job site. As a Red Seal Carpenter, Liam is in a trade that earns an average of nearly $70,000 a year with many experienced carpenters earning well over $85,000 when overtime comes into play.  

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Women 

While Adam and Liam Coughlin represent many in the construction industry (males make up the overwhelming majority of construction workers), there are also some members of society that the trades will need to attract if it hopes to avoid the pitfalls of a worker shortage: namely women, Indigenous people and new Canadians. Traditionally steered away from construction, women have started to creep their way into a prominent position in the industry. Incremental increases in female employees over the past number of years have led to 200,000 women in the construction workforce, now accounting for 13% of workers across the country. Industry insiders like the people at BuildForce Canada say it’s important to follow the data when marketing a construction career to women. Breaking down the 13% of women in the construction workforce shows that 41% are working off-site in professions like accounting, law and management while almost 5% are on-site working in mostly finishing trade positions. Women in the construction trades have shown a clear preference for working inside performing skilled tasks. Bill Ferreira says, “If we focus our marketing for women on career opportunities as electricians, plumbers, painters, welders, crane operators and heavy equipment operators, we might see high levels of uptake in the on-site female workforce.”  

Indigenous people 

Indigenous workers make up 5% of the construction workforce with higher representation in western Canada and very little representation in eastern Canada. The disparity, while a reflection of Indigenous population distribution, also demonstrates that provinces like Manitoba (whose workforce is comprised of 16% Indigenous workers) actively recruit Indigenous people while eastern provinces need to step up their game. For example, the construction workforce of Ontario and Quebec are made up of a little over 2% of Indigenous workers. With a little bit of marketing, these numbers could easily be raised and, this often marginalized group, could be working in a profession that brings with it plenty of job satisfaction. Bill Ferreira cautions, “this requires working closely with Indigenous communities and Indigenous role models to ensure that young Indigenous people identify with the industry and can see themselves welcomed within it.” Whenever possible, guidance counsellors across Canada should be promoting the varying professions within the construction sector to Indigenous people.  

Newcomers to Canada 

Canada welcomes over 300,000 immigrants into the country every year. Most land in the major metropolitan areas of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. These newcomers arrive from varying circumstances: some have means, others are sponsored by families or groups within Canada and some are seeking safe haven as refugees. The Canadian economy thrives and grows as a direct result of the hard work of immigrants and the wealth they generate after they arrive. The construction industry has been a work destination for many newcomers and, once again, counsellors would be helping the Canadian economy by directing new Canadian students to a career in construction.  

The Future 

Bill Ferreira, Executive Director of BuildForce Canada

With a substantial worker shortfall anticipated between now and 2029, Canada needs to employ as many strategies as possible to address the construction sectors labour requirements. Outfits like BuildForce Canada are doing their part to promote the trades and guidance counsellors can do their part as well. They can demonstrate to students that a career in construction offers a variety of work experience and expertise. They can demonstrate that the construction industry needs workers and that a career in the sector brings with it, not only a steady income, but also a high degree of job satisfaction. In the end, counsellors can show students that construction is a viable career for motivated individauls who are intent on building (literally) Canada’s future.  

Special thanks to BuildForce Canada’s Bill Ferreira, Executive Director, and Pamela Feeny, Editor and Digital Content Manager, for their expertise and insight in the preparation of this article.  

By Sean Dolan


Resources:

BuildForce Canada – www.buildforce.ca
BuildTogether Workforce Development – buildtogether.ca
Canada’s Building Trades Union – buildingtrades.ca
Careers in Construction – www.careersinconstruction.ca
The Construction Institute of Canada – www.tcic.ca/pub/index.html
Opportunity Knocks – opportunity-knocks.ca/