Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Coming Trade Shortage

"It's going to be hard - and very expensive - to live in a country where only a few know how to fix a broken car engine or faucet, build well-crafted homes or make sure the lights come on when it gets dark," says Katherine Harding of Canada's Globe & Mail.

In the 1940's and 1950's you didn't have too many choices to cool off on a hot day. Many houses only recently began enjoying the comforts of indoor plumbing and indoor electricity powered little more than the light next to your favorite easy chair.

It wasn't Doctorate degrees or professional certifications that brought these things to pass. It was the hard work of a select few who decided to dedicate themselves to learn a trade. A trade passed down, refined and improved upon generation after generation after generation.

Canada is facing a huge skills shortage . Government statisticians say that by 2020 there will be 1 million fewer tradespeople than they need.

"We often forget the value and importance of the skilled trades because we take their work for granted," says Keith Lancastle, Executive Director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF). "Our lights stay on, our water is clean and our cars are on the road. We rarely stop to think of the people who work hard to make things run smoothly."

That we rarely stop to think might make our stuff just stop working.

For decades well-meaning parents in Canada have been encouraging their kids to get a college degree as their ticket to the good life. That's a good idea, of course. Continuing ones education is a defining step in becoming a productive, tax-paying adult.

Soon, however, Canadians became too focused on that nice piece of parchment. It became the do-all end-all. Many technically gifted youngsters may have been encouraged not to explore their passion to fix things, but to get a degree - any degree - so that they could get a 'good' job.

Before they knew it, schools decided 'shop' classes weren't so important anymore. Instead, they were replaced by more computer classes, language classes and art classes. These are important to get into college, they said.

In 1966, 20% of a Canadian high schoolers course credits were in technical subjects. By 1990, only 5% were of a technical nature. Today it's even lower.
Canadians are trying to wrap their arms around the issue. In March 2002, the Conference Board of Canada issued a report entitled "Solving the Skilled Trades Shortage". In it, they talk about many of the issues already mentioned here. They also shed some light on why young people are shying away from the trades.

First, they found that young people find the trades 'relatively unattractive'. In other words, 'they lack the cache of white collar jobs'. The study reports "Other common youth perceptions are cold, dirty, outdoor, seasonal, boom and bust occupations, that involve repetitive work, low job satisfaction, and little imagination for even less compensation."


The report goes on to point out that their adult leaders know no more than their children, "They are frequently misinformed by parents, teacher and guidance counselors, who regard the skilled trades as "dead end" or second best jobs, to be pursued only when other avenues are closed. Teachers and guidance counselors still regard the trades as best suited for students who have difficulty achieving academically and do not recommend them as first choices for students who achieve at relatively higher levels of performance."

And so it's the blind leading the blind up in the Great White North.

The fact is, however, that the time has passed where you could equate a plumber with a ditch digger or a janitor. Today's technicians need high levels of skills in areas people likely don't think about. Subjects such as algebra and calculus, physics and computers are all in the training regimine of today's technicians. The skills technicians need today greatly overshadow those of yesteryear.

But what about here in the good ol' U S of A? Well, we may be trodding the same path...

In January 2005, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis published an article in their FedGazette entitled "The hard hat blues":

"...while good-paying skilled trades careers are available, workers are not putting on the hard hat, picking up the hammer or getting under the hood, so to speak, in numbers proportional to demand."

The reason? "Its good work (for someone else)."

And so it is here as it is north of the border. The Fed goes on to say:
"The word 'apprenticeship' is kind of like the word 'vocational': it's a bad word" said Steven Rounds, project manager for tech prep programs with the South Dakota Department of Education. 'If your kid is in a vocational career, he's looked down on." Jim McKeon, president and CEO of the Rapid City (S.D.) Chamber of Commerce, said he attended a meeting with about 20 community and business leaders, and there was widespread agreement about the future need for skilled trades workers. Then McKeon asked who among them was encouraging their kids to pursue such a path, "and of the 20 people in the room, not a hand went up."

I think the next time the cable guy shows up late I'll just count my blessings.

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