Canadian colleges confront a looming skilled labour shortage

Two week ago, the heads of colleges across the province of British Columbia met at the Advance 2010+ conference to face, head on, the challenge of a growing skilled labour shortage in Canada. Among the speakers at the event was Paul Charette, the chair of Bird Construction Company, who sounded the alarm that a crisis was approaching and more needed to be done. The conference was hosted by BC Colleges, a consortium of 11 institutions representing 250,000 students.

Jim Reed, president of BC Colleges, explains that “the conference held in Vancouver brought together the leadership of the colleges in B.C/ for the sole purpose of looking at how the college system should work in a more collaborative way to address what we see is a significant challenge in the province and country in the coming years with the skilled labour shortage.”

There have been many identified causes of the impending shortage of skilled labour across the country, from demographic trends to attitudinal changes in the Canadian public. Rick Miner, president emeritus of Seneca College, drafted a report on the skilled labour crisis last year entitled “People Without Jobs; Jobs Without People: Ontario’s Labour Market.” Reed credits the report as a wakeup call to colleges in B.C. about the gravity of the challenge faced with the mismatch of education and job availability on the new market.

Miner identifies a key problem as a stigma behind going into the skilled trades or attending college for a more practical education.

“There is still an attitudinal issue in the population, primarily of reluctance to push their children to the skilled trades…. there is a bias towards universities in the hierarchy of education,” he said.

Miner admits that this is beginning to change slowly, pointing out that college enrollments have gone up faster than universities and that one of the largest sources of college recruits are university graduates supplementing their degree. “I think there is more and more recognition that while having a four-year baccalaureate degree might be good eventually, you have to get a job and the applied relevance of a college degree is valuable,” he explained.

Both Miner and Reed agree that the primary cause of the labour shortage is changing demographics. Specifically, the retirement of the baby-boomers is altering the ratio of taxed wage-earners to those that primarily receive benefits, such as the elderly. It also means there are simply less people able to take on the jobs that are needed to be filled.

“The first baby-boomers turn 65 next year and the reality is there is a dropping fertility rate in Canada,” explained Reed. “An aging workforce will shift the economy right across the country …. they’ve identified in B.C. alone that there would be one million job openings unfilled. The impact will be just as profound in the rest of Canada.”

Miner points out that the lack of filled positions does not mean there will be low unemployment. In fact, he predicts, just the opposite will occur.

“Governments will face an increased unemployment rate because people don’t have the skills to find a job and at the same time you have employers who can’t find workers will skills. It’s a real mismatch,” said Miner.

With a declining tax base due to increased unemployment and labour market attrition, it will become increasing difficult to maintain the current trajectory of government spending. This has profound implications on the services offered by all levels of government.

“If you can’t fully employ your workforce you can’t pay for the social programs. It’s going to be a real dilemma,” predicts Miner. “It will be harder to support your health care, your educational institutions and other social services.”

Reed argues that the shortage will also impact the Canadian economy. In particular, it will limit Canada’s ability to compete globally.
“There is aggressive global competition for skilled workers. If we are not able to provide those workers for our own economy…. the jobs and industries are likely to go elsewhere,” he warns.

For Reed, the Advance 2010+ conference was the first step in working to combat the shortage by increasing the co-operation between colleges in British Columbia and looking at the problem from a system wide point of view.

“It comes down to looking at things from a system-wide basis and sharing our collective resources more effectively,” said Reed. “We can collaborate in part between colleges, but also with universities and industry to respond to the labour market requirements of the province in the long term.”

Miner echoes Reed’s calls for greater integration between all stakeholders: the educational system, industry and government. Miner, however, takes it a step further, calling on the federal government to get more formally involved, specifically with the creation of a Ministry of Education.

Reed is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of easing the negative impact of the coming labour shortage.

“I do think we have a serious challenge provincially and nationally and we are not the silver bullet, but an important part of it as are universities and industry,” he said. “But if we work together more as collaborators as opposed to competitors I think we have a chance at solving part of the problem.”