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Turning a problem upside down

Message for Liz Sandals, the new minister of education: we can solve the great labour market problems. You’re facing panic in the land.
David Robinson, Economist, Laurentian University,

Message for Liz Sandals, the new minister of education: we can solve the great labour market problems.

You’re facing panic in the land. The Royal Bank reports a growing shortage of skilled tradespeople and warns that the number of skilled workers available will be outpaced by demand over the next 20 years. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce reports that many businesses can’t find qualified Canadian-born workers.

A Financial Post headline blares, “Skilled trades talent shortage is next crisis for Canadian businesses.” The Ontario Conservative party announces, “Ontario has a jobs crisis and a shortage of skilled trades.” There is a real problem, and studies show it isn’t going away. Skills Canada reports that 40 per cent of new jobs will be in skilled trades or technology, but just 26 per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 plan to consider a career in the skilled trades.

Some of the handwringing is a bit excessive. A Harris-Decima survey reported that almost half of Canadians don’t know how to install a bathroom or kitchen faucet. This is supposed to be evidence that Canadian skill level has fallen to a pathetically low level. The same study told us 69 per cent of men said they couldn’t replace a zipper. Hang your heads, men: you are part of the great skill crisis!

But the problem is real, so a lot of effort is going into fixing the traditional apprenticeship system. That is probably another hopeless project. The economics don’t work anymore. Higher entry wages mean young, untrained workers are often not worth their pay. Labour mobility means once workers are trained they can jump to another job. There is no profit for a company investing in training that a competitor can steal. Nowadays governments have to pay companies to take apprentices. It gets worse. Learning trades and crafts used to begin in the family, on the farm, or in the community. Today’s young people are less and less likely to have any contact with trades and craft production as they grow up. In the modern world children are confined to schools and lead increasingly scheduled and distracted lives. Yay, Xbox.

And in the schools, fewer and fewer teachers have any contact with trades or crafts. This is especially the case in the early grades where the overwhelming majority of teachers are women who have spent their entire pre-professional lives in formal education. You can’t blame the teachers, but you can’t expect them to encourage girls to go into the trades, let alone encourage boys to build and break things (that’s my ideal school).

Getting more men into the primary grades is hard and will involve discriminatory hiring. We may have to go that route, but it will take a long, long time.

The alternative to replacing the existing teachers is to fix them. It turns out it is actually easy. It doesn’t even require legislation! The schools already have a system of additional qualification increments— ore pay for getting more training. So offer increments for any teacher in grades one to four when they take a college- level trades course.

It’s an approach that uses existing rules. It isn’t discriminatory. It is relatively cheap. It isn’t even sexist. It also gives a clear signal to teachers, parents and children.

The school system will be saying it values the trades. It will also be saying it values its teachers. It says, “We know you can do this. We trust you.”

It’s good for girls. Female teachers with trades experience will obviously encourage young girls to think about the trades from time to time. It is likely to make school a bit more interesting for boys, too. It will be good for colleges. They are caught in a chicken-and-egg problem. How do you get students to enroll in classes they don’t know they need? In the short run, primary teachers would add to demand. In the long run more students would set their sights on trades programs. It is also good for teachers. It will broaden their minds. It could give them new career opportunities. It could be seen as a kind of job insurance. What a gift! Put it in the budget, Liz.