Is there more work than workers? More workers than work? How seriously do we need to take the impending retirement of the boomer generation? Because the trades are such a vital piece of our economy, planning a prosperous future for Ontario means taking a serious look at these questions.

In speaking with James Hogarth, Business Manager of the Ontario Pipe Trades Council, the first thing he made clear is that there is no immediate shortage of skilled labour. The concern regarding a “skills gap” is really a forward-looking challenge, and one that can be overcome with proper planning. “We can fulfill the need for skilled labour going forward,” says Hogarth. “Everyone talks about the thousands of workers retiring, but that is going to be happening over a number of years, and the important thing is that we backfill that need with new apprentices.”

“An apprenticeship is not a seat in a community college”

Of course, if Ontario is going to create apprenticeships today for the experienced tradespeople of tomorrow, we need projects to train them on. And in times of private construction lulls, like we are currently experiencing in Ontario, creating those projects falls largely to the government. “If you have governments investing in infrastructure, it creates opportunity to bring people into the workforce,” says Patrick Dillon, Business Manager and Secretary Treasurer of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario. “We can’t train people in construction unless we have jobs to train them on. An apprenticeship is not a seat in a community college or a training centre. An apprenticeship is a job out there on the work site.”

“Everyone talks about the thousands of workers retiring, but that is going to be happening over a number of years, and the important thing is that we backfill that need with new apprentices.”

To see the sense in this kind of investment, we need look no further back than 2008. As the global economy collapsed, Ontario was investing record amounts of money into infrastructure. As a result, the construction industry, and the tradespeople it employed, weathered the recession largely unscathed. The outcome was a stronger economy throughout the province, a mostly intact middle-class and the added benefit of new hospitals and schools. “When the economy is good, tradespeople make up a large portion of the middle class,” Hogarth reminds us.

It is a lesson that our governments, provincial and federal, could do well to remember today. Ontario’s future is bright, but only if we continue to support and employ the skilled tradespeople that are our economic centre.