Sarah Watts-Rynard – Building the next generation of tradespeople

Voices from HEQCO’s November 2014 conference
Hands On: Exploring Apprenticeship and the Skilled Trades

Photo of Sarah Watts-Rynard


Guest blogger: Sarah Watts-Rynard

Despite some debate about whether or not Canada is experiencing a skills shortage – economists say no, employers say yes – the reality is that a generation of expert tradespeople is moving toward retirement age.  Their exit from the workforce means the loss of substantial expertise when it comes to building, operating and maintaining Canada’s infrastructure.

The timing of this demographic reality can’t be overlooked.  There are major construction projects planned or underway in every city across Canada.  The aging infrastructure associated with transportation, power generation and sewage systems are reaching end of life just as a generation that pursued the trades in higher numbers is also hanging up its tool belts.  Canada’s resource economy is showing no signs of slowing down, generating requirements for tradespeople in mining, oil and gas, and forestry.  To ignore this situation would be short-sighted.

My organization encourages more youth and more employers to get involved with apprenticeship training.  Youth are seeking opportunity and employers require skilled workers.  Apprentices need opportunities to put their skills into action in real workplace settings, driven by production deadlines, weather conditions and relationships.  Unlike other postsecondary training, this relies heavily on the quality of training provided in workplaces, under the supervision of a qualified journeyperson.

While more than 70% of employers in the skilled trades believe there will be a shortage of workers in the future, 25% say they have no strategy to address it.  In fact, our research shows that only 19% of skilled trades employers are training apprentices to meet their own requirements.  Many employers question why the education system doesn’t produce fully proficient workers, while others are content to hire certified journeypersons trained by others.  Meanwhile, students interested in the trades struggle to find their first job and those who are successful lack assurance that jobs will be available throughout their training period.

Apprentices tell us that one of the most important factors in success is the relationship with their journeyperson mentor.  This speaks volumes about the importance of engaging today’s experienced journeypersons in knowledge transfer, ensuring the right people are in place to model, instruct, oversee and correct.  While not everyone is suited to the role, the desire and ability to teach on the job has a powerful impact on employee morale, especially in the years leading to retirement.

Personally, I would prefer that skills shortages don’t become so urgent that employers and economists agree about whether they are impacting Canada’s productivity and growth.  However, until and unless skilled trades employers are a fundamental part of growing the next generation of tradespeople, it is increasingly unlikely that the one-fifth that train will be able to keep up with demand.

This is just part of the discussion we will have at this year’s Skilled Trades Summit in Ottawa June 1-3.  We welcome all interested delegates to be part of this conversation.  Learn more at

Sarah Watts-Rynard is executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, a non-profit organization that connects Canada’s apprenticeship community. She is a speaker at our upcoming conference Hands On: Exploring Apprenticeship and the Skilled Trades.

Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinion, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

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