Thinking outside the box

Finding new ways to close the skills gap

How many times have we heard there is a skills shortage in the wood industry? There is plenty of work for the taking, but not enough taking by qualified job seekers. This is a structural problem that goes beyond our industry and pervades skilled trades across the country.

Perhaps the first step in dealing with the problem is finding out why it occurs. Various theories have been bandied about both within wood industry circles and with other trades. Some say it’s cultural, where a stigma persists with trade-related work. Some say it’s economic because there just isn’t enough money for wood manufacturers to attract young people to the trade.

Well, according to a recent article published in the Vancouver Sun, another factor may well be responsible: parents. Research done to examine the so-called trades gap shows that parents often lack a basic understanding of the realities of the workforce. Instead of recognizing the need for skilled tradespeople, parents often encourage university attendance — which leads to a skewing of the labour force away from where the jobs actually are.

Either/or

One of the unfortunate consequences of such a trend is that we see an either/or scenario unfold with young people. Specifically, either they go to university in the pursuit of higher-paying white collar jobs, or they simply quit and settle for the best job they can get, which might not be much. Left to twist in the wind are the skilled jobs in trades such as the wood industry that could use some of those workers that are now toiling in McDonald’s, Walmart or the gas station.

If part of the problem is that the same things are done over and over again, without any effect, then maybe some people need to start thinking outside the box. That is exactly what they are doing in places like P.E.I., where the Herizons programs has come up with an innovative way of matching newly skilled workers with long-time seeking trades employers.

In fact, the name of the program provides a clue as to what their solution is. The first three letters should get you there: Her. That’s right, Herizons is a program that matches low-income women with skills-seeking trades employers. It’s a not-for-profit organization that gets its funding from both the provincial and federal governments.

Match-making

According to Herizons project manager, Sara Roach-Lewis, this kind of program does what a jobs program really should do, which is to match employers looking for skilled workers with willing and able-bodied skilled workers. Roach-Lewis says, “We really see it as a win-win-win situation for everyone involved. Women who would otherwise be working in lower paying jobs are matched with companies that could use the newly trained labour.”

Roach-Lewis says the program in P.E.I. is not the only one in the country. In fact, she openly envies a similar program in Newfoundland that works in conjunction with apprentice programs to get skilled tradeswomen successfully into the workforce. Roach-Lewis believes programs like these really are a no-brainer. She says, “We take women who might be making $20,000 a year working in a hair salon and get them employed for considerably more doing a trade that is in demand.”

And according to Roach-Lewis, that’s what her program has achieved in various trades, including the wood industry. She says that one woman has already graduated from the program and has been hired by a company to do carpentry/renovation projects. Another graduate is on the way having completed a two-year program in wood industry training. In a province as tiny as P.E.I., these are pretty big numbers, and can only get bigger with time.

Yet Roach-Lewis is quick to point out that employers don’t have to rely on programs like hers to encourage women to participate in the labour market. Part of the justification for such programs is to encourage women in general to participate in the trades. Roach-Lewis says, “We hope to serve as an example so that women can go to community college trades programs on their own, and that employers can seek out such women on their own, too.”

Seduced by other careers

If women serve as an untapped segment of the trades labour force, young men certainly aren’t. Dustin Sherrard is one such example of a typical and promising student who is about to graduate from one of the best woodworking schools around: Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont. Sherrard is completing the two-year woodworking technician program at the school, which should serve him well in landing a job in the wood sector, right?

Maybe not. The problem for Sherrard is, despite completing the program; despite just winning skills competitions in wood craftsmanship; despite earning the wood industry’s spot at the Tech@Work expo recently held at Conestoga’s Cambridge, Ont., campus, Sherrard says he doesn’t want to work in the industry for a living. Instead, he wants to get into video games development.

According to Sherrard, “Don’t get me wrong, I love the trade, and will do it for the rest of my life in some capacity. However, being in the wood industry program allowed me to learn a couple of things. One is that I really like computers, which attracted me to the video games world. Another thing I learned, especially during my summer job, is that professional wood craftsmanship has its challenges.”

One of those challenges is that, for those starting out like him, and who only enroll in the smaller two-year program at Conestoga, instead of the higher-profile, three-year program, the kinds of jobs available aren’t the most glamorous. According to Sherrard, “I wasn’t even working with wood during my summer job. We were doing countertops, which really isn’t my thing.”

Tom Cruise

Another challenge for young wood industry students like Sherrard is coming to terms with the kind of money that can be earned in the trade. In fact, Sherrard’s father, Mike, who accompanied his son at Tech@Work, waxes philosophically about the plight of his son and other prospective woodworkers. As he puts it, “You know, unless you’re making furniture for Tom Cruise, it can be a struggle to make ends meet. So, Dustin decided to get into video games, where you don’t need to know Tom Cruise to make a better living.”

This reality isn’t breaking news for many in the industry. Carlo Di Felice is vice principal of Lakeshore Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ont., which is home to a WoodLinks shop run by the Wood Manufacturing Council. Di Felice talks about the challenges facing students that enroll in his school and in programs like WoodLinks.

According to Di Felice, “My brother is a woodworker, and he’s one of the few who has made a very lucrative living in the trade. He has been in Europe and done some wonderful projects that are appreciated by connoisseurs and aficionados alike. Yet he’s the exception. For students in our program, a steady job making decent money where there’s demand would be great.”

One of the challenges in overcoming the skills gap is dealing with expectations, as well as traditional assumptions. One of those traditional assumptions is that young and talented students like Dustin Sherrard are a perfect fit for the industry. Yet, as we’ve seen, that often isn’t the case. In fact, it’s his expectations that have led him to another career field for the moment.

Breaking the mould

This might be why such programs as Herizons, or others, can serve to break open some of those traditional assumptions and expectations. If a young man seduced by a career in video games doesn’t fit the bill, maybe a young woman seeking a step up in life does. As Herizons program director Roach-Lewis describes it, “Why keep going after the same labour pool if it’s not working out? Why not try groups of people that are able, willing and eager — like women, or other untapped groups like immigrants, for example?”

Roach-Lewis hits upon an important point regarding the integration of such groups into job sectors they’re traditionally not familiar with. She says, “We have found that, at first, it’s a cultural thing. Employers might not be used to hiring and working with women or immigrants. However, it takes time and communication. Once employers get used to using different groups within their workplace, the adjustment occurs. Everyone eventually works together and gets used to one another.”

Maybe that’s what the wood industry needs to help close its well known skills gap: to reach out to previously untapped sectors of the labour market. Instead of waiting for the expert class to educate the population about what trades are all about, maybe the trades need to start reaching out to people who can be committed to the work, its pay and its rewards.

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