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The Engineer: Searching for skill

Searching for skill

September 24, 2019  By David Heska

Three quick facts: one, Baby boomers are getting older; two, the average age of a construction worker in Canada is 42; three, 69 per cent of contractors in Ontario expect to have difficulty finding skilled workers this year.

Like many other industries, we are asking “Where will the next generation of skilled staff come from?” We are already seeing the warning signs of a skilled labour shortage. Companies are turning down work, declining to bid on projects, raising prices or using less qualified labour.

The good news is that in a few ways we are ahead of some fields. The Ontario College of Trades already has a designation for Architectural Glass and Metal Technician and nationally the Red Seal occupational standard for glazier has been in place since 1986. At the recent Top Glass tradeshow I was interested to learn more about the Architectural Glass and Metal Certification Council’s third-party certification. Right now the program is predominantly U.S.-based but they are trying to make inroads here in Canada.

Is third-party certification the answer to our skilled labour shortage? I’m not convinced. Not-for-profit industry organizations are important for gathering like-minded individuals with similar passions. I’m involved in a few of these organizations and the benefits are numerous, including continuing education.  But let’s not presume that there is a magic solution to this problem.

In other building construction disciplines the International Concrete Repair Institute has designated Concrete Surface Repair Technicians and the Exterior Insulation Finish Systems Council has created a Quality Assurance Program. However, neither of these has gained significant traction across Canada. We are trying to improve the quality of our building stock and we are trying to reduce the number of poor contractors and suppliers, but it’s an uphill climb.  

Let me propose a few solutions.  

First, we must automate. Automation helps solve the problem of the skilled labour shortage by reducing the number of staff needed. The robotics in our window and glass manufacturing plants is only going to increase in the coming years and more building components will be prefabricated before arriving to site.  We need to embrace this change and accept. Skilled labour will still be needed, but the tasks being completed will not be the same as they were 20 years ago.

Second, we need to improve our education systems. More work needs to be done in our secondary schools so that students know what to expect if they choose a career in the skilled trades and what opportunities there are for advancement. The government cuts to high school shop classes need to stop and we must engage with the co-op programs to provide hands-on experience for these young people.

Finally, we must look into gradual credentialing rather than all-or-nothing apprenticeship. The statistics show that Millennials are likely to have four job changes by the time they are 32 years old. We cannot expect them to be as loyal as their grandparents were to one company for an entire career.  

To accomplish this, we must roll up our sleeves and embrace change.  Are you ready?

David Heska, P.Eng. is a director with WSP’s building sciences team in southwestern Ontario. He oversees the operation of the Hamilton, Kitchener and Windsor offices. David has been involved on window simulation projects as well as the design and replacement of windows in commercial and residential buildings. He can be reached at

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