Jordan Harper had been working mostly odd jobs since leaving high school.
He started out doing landscaping and washing cars, never really landing on a job with much stability. Growing up in Burnaby, B.C., Harper didn’t really come across a career path that fired him up.
He was clear on one thing, though. “I knew that I liked to work with my hands and that I like to build stuff so I can see a finished product.”
Married with a young daughter at home and a baby on the way, Harper found himself taking roofing jobs where the safety standards were lax.
“I wasn’t earning much money before and it was unsafe a lot of the time. The problem with that is, if you refuse to do it, they’re going to find a reason to get rid of you.”
A lunch with a friend at North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay led to “a complete 180” in his work and financial situation. Looking out over the marina, he spotted a beautiful yacht, owned — his friend explained — by Kyle Washington, chairman of Seaspan Shipyards.
The friend told him the company was a great place to work with excellent benefits, said Harper. He set his sights that day on working for the shipbuilder.
Within a year Harper had registered for an apprenticeship as a metal fabricator-fitter, completed a six-month foundations course at British Columbia Institute of Technology, and got an apprenticeship job at Seaspan. One week ago he learned that he passed his final Red Seal exam, making his trade certification official.
Harper is one of thousands of Canadians to find well-paying jobs in the trades each year, taking advantage of strong demand for their skills and higher retirement rates stemming from an aging workforce. Yet the variety and scope of opportunities in the trades tends to be poorly understood by the population as a whole.
We know there is now more people leaving than entering the workforce, and especially for the trades this is going to become critical.
— André Lebel, Statistics Canada
According to a recent report put together by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, Canada needs to attract 167,739 new apprentices over the next five years just to keep pace with current demand.
And that’s actually a low estimate. Because of differences in the way the trades are classified, that number excludes both Quebec — currently home to 20 per cent of all apprentices — and the territories.
The Red Seal Program is a federal-provincial-territorial partnership that works with industry to set common standards and assess the skills of tradespeople.
In the first quarter for 2019, there were 60,170 job vacancies in Red Seal trades, an increase of 14 per cent from a year earlier, according to Statistics Canada’s job vacancy and wage survey.
“Overall in the workforce we know there is now more people leaving than entering the workforce, and especially for the trades this is going to become critical,” said André Lebel, chief statistician in charge of data on registered apprenticeship for Statistics Canada’s Centre for Education Statistics.
Over the past two decades, demand for tradespeople increased alongside growth in construction and natural resources fields as well.
As a result, the number of people registered in apprentice programs in Canada has grown sharply since the end of the 1990s, rising to 405,699 in 2017 from 199,074 in 2000, according to Statistics Canada data released in December.
But the number of new registrations and certificates granted declined for three years starting in 2014, in parallel to the collapse in oil in resources prices, and hasn’t yet recovered — only adding to the shortage.
Emna Braham, senior economist at the Labour Market Information Council (LMIC) in Ottawa, said about nine per cent of current job vacancies in Canada are for apprentices or those with completed trade certificates. “And these are very good-paying jobs.”
Where the jobs are
That’s a more significant portion of good available jobs than it might seem at first glance, given that more than 30 per cent of vacancies are for unskilled jobs that pay around $15 an hour and naturally have high turnover, she said.
Of those vacant jobs in the trades, slightly more than a quarter are in a category described as “trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations,” and another another five per cent are in “manufacturing and utilities.”
Data prepared for CBC News by LMIC highlights some of the trades with the largest growth in the decade between 2008 and 2018.
Topping the list are metal fabricators, like Harper, who have seen 41.6 per cent employment growth in that time, followed by rig technicians at 38.2 per cent and agricultural equipment technicians at 32.8 per cent.
Braham notes that agriculture isn’t the first field that comes to mind when one thinks about the trades. “Agriculture has been doing a lot of massive investment in new technology, improving productivity a lot, and that calls for higher-skilled technicians in that field.”
By contrast, employment growth on average for people whose occupations call for a university degree was 15.1 per cent over that same 10-year period.
Kael Campbell is the president of Red Seal Recruiting Solutions, a firm that specializes in hiring people in the trades on behalf of clients across Canada.
“We’re usually helping somebody who is already employed find a better job,” he said.
There’s increased demand in almost every trade due to technology changes.
— Kael Campbell, president, Red Seal Recruiting Solutions
“There’s increased demand in almost every trade due to technology changes.”
Consider how much cars are evolving, for example.
“An automotive technician in any part of the country, they have got almost endless opportunities because cars are becoming more complicated and they also continue to break down,” said Campbell.
Campbell said he has a lot of demand for agricultural technicians as well, something he doesn’t foresee changing. “People always have to eat.”
Statistics Canada data found that four years after certification, people working as heavy duty equipment technicians had the highest average annual salary at $107,220. These tradespeople work on the heavy earth-moving equipment such as excavators and backhoes.
Steamfitters-pipefitters, who assemble, fabricate, maintain and repair piping systems — such as the kind used to heat and cool buildings — had the second highest annual average pay after four years in the field at $105,620.
Looking at hourly earnings in 2018 among certified tradespeople and apprentices still working on their certifications, rig technicians averaged $38.90, boilermakers $38, steamfitters/pipefitters $35.10, ironworkers $33.50 and agricultural equipment technicians $33, according to LMIC calculations based on data from Statistics Canada’s labour force survey.
At the time of certification, the median income across 18 trades surveyed by Statistics Canada in 2010 was $52,030. The highest average starting salaries were $79,920 for heavy duty equipment technicians, $78,030 for steamfitter-pipefitters and $74,350 for industrial electricians.
Hilary Noack is an autobody and collision technician who started her own all-woman autobody shop, Ink and Iron, four years ago in Oakville, Ont.
She said salaries have gone way up since she got her start in the industry as a high school co-op student 17 years ago, later doing her apprenticeship foundations course at Centennial College in Toronto.
“Seventeen years ago we were the lowest-paid trade. Now I’m seeing jobs advertise for six figures, like $140,000 a year as a licensed body man. I’m glad to see it taking that turn.”
Getting people on board
Noack said she’s observed attitudes toward trade workers shift. “When I started it was almost taboo to get into a trade. It has this misconception, like ‘You’re not smart enough for college so you should go work with your hands.’ People frowned on blue-collar workers.”
Now there’s a more concerted effort to recruit people into the trades. Case in point: Noack and some of her staff were recently invited to speak to a group of high school girls considering the trades.
Jordan Harper wouldn’t be working at Seaspan Shipyards if it weren’t for a program called Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society (ACCESS). Harper is Cree, and the program covered his living expenses while he completed the classroom portions of his training and provided a six-month math prep course that helps people who’ve been out of school for a while to be successful.
The federal government provides funding to various organizations to promote trades careers through the Skilled Trades Awareness and Readiness Program, said Isabelle Maheu, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada.
There is still limited awareness about the wide range of opportunities in the skilled trades.
— Isabelle Maheu, Employment and Social Development Canada
“There is still limited awareness about the wide range of opportunities in the skilled trades. Many youth do not tend to readily view trades as a first-choice career, and apprenticeship is not always promoted to youth as a pathway to rewarding and well-paying jobs.”
Harper said he “didn’t even know it was possible” to earn a good living as an apprentice while effectively going to school, but he’s glad to found out. Financially he’s doing better than ever.
Given that Seaspan is flush with shipbuilding contracts, Harper — now a father of three — said he’s confident in his future.
“I know that I’m going to keep working and earning a good living wage to keep providing for my family.”