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Apprenticeship ad's claim of skilled trades shortfall open to question

01/11/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/12/2015 05:59 EDT
A government ad to promote the new Canada apprentice loan program claims the Canadian economy will need "one million skilled tradesmen and women" over the next decade.

But independent forecasts and even the government's own projections tell a different story.

The government pointed CBC News to "a combination of industry estimates," several of which were written by Rick Miner, the president of Miner & Miner Ltd., a management consulting firm specializing in labour market issues.

Miner concluded that Canada will face a "major problem" with skilled worker shortages if nothing changes over the next 16 years.

But he told CBC News his projections are for overall labour and for skilled labour, not specific to the trades. 

"I think you'd have a tough time finding somebody who is going to back that unless they have a real broad definition of both the trades and a broad definition of what they define as shortage," Miner said.

"If somebody said … right now there's a shortage of a million workers in the trades in Canada, I'd say that's an inflated number. That's not true."

Asked if he could point to labour data showing Canada would face a shortage of "one million skilled trades" workers over the next decade, Miner said he could not.

The government also pointed to a 2013 estimate by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. But Sarah Anson-Cartwright, the chamber's director of skills policy, told CBC News those forecasts originated from Miner's older reports, which are not specific to the trades and have since been reviewed.

"The Canadian chamber does not cite the forecasts from Miner's 2010 and 2012 reports since they are out-dated now."

Skilled workers vs. trades

The government also pointed to a 14-year-old Conference Board of Canada report that found the labour shortfall could reach nearly a million workers by 2020.

But the non-profit think-tank revisited the report a little over a year ago and publicly said the so-called "million worker shortfall" was "not possible" and widely "misunderstood."

"In that same report, we explained that a worker shortfall is 'logically impossible,'" wrote Pedro Antunes, the deputy chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada, in a commentary published on Nov. 11, 2013.

"Essentially, the economy has to operate with the workers that are available — by substituting labour for capital and reducing production," he wrote.

Antunes told CBC News the Conference Board of Canada saw fit to revisit the 2000 report because "we were seeing the number bandied about and it was an old forecast that was done over a decade ago."

He also said the decade-old report was about overall employment and not just about the trades.

"Trades is absolutely part of it but when we talked about skilled workers, it was in general … it was not specific to trades."​

Shortages in 'high-skilled' jobs

In announcing the new loan in B.C. this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was more careful, citing "one million additional skilled workers" — not a shortfall of "trades" workers.

Even the government's most recent projections, by Employment and Social Development Canada, show that labour shortages over the period of 2013-22 are projected "mostly in high-skilled occupations."

According to the government's outlook, 47 occupations are expected to face shortages by 2022, with the majority of those in the health sector.

Only six of the 47 occupations facing labour shortages are in what the government calls "trades, transport and equipment," which includes electrical trades, heavy construction equipment crews and welders, among others.

The government does not give a projection for workers in the trades, but it does provide a forecast by different skill levels. 

Occupations with significant health and safety responsibilities, such as firefighters, police officers and nurses, are assigned to skill level B, a category that also includes chefs, electricians and plumbers.

The report shows that while jobs in this wide-ranging category are "overall ... projected to be in balance" over the period of 2013-22, 18 occupations in this category are projected to face a shortage of 846,000 workers.

Other estimates in the mining, oil and gas, and construction sectors predict labour shortages ranging from 116,800 to as many as 300,000 workers over the next decade, depending on the industry.

Miner said part of the reason there is no national data specific to labour shortages in the trades is because there is an absence of good labour market data overall.

Even Employment Minister Jason Kenney has acknowledged a weakness in Canada's labour data and promised to take action, beginning with two new labour market studies at a cost of $14 million.

Apprenticeship loans

The new government ad also claims students registered in a Red Seal trade apprenticeship will be able to apply for "interest free" loans of up to $4,000 per period of technical training, but the terms of repayment make it clear the loan will have to be paid back with interest once the training is completed.

The government said ESDC consulted Advertising Standards Canada before airing the ads and verified that "requirements under the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards were met."

The department would not say how much it was spending on the 30-second television ad.

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