Nova Scotia in midst of labour shortage in skilled trades, experts say

·4 min read
Apprentice Vincent Kennedy learns on the job from Howard Benjamin. The construction sector in Nova Scotia is feeling the squeeze particularly hard, due in part to the government mandate to provide more housing. (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)
Apprentice Vincent Kennedy learns on the job from Howard Benjamin. The construction sector in Nova Scotia is feeling the squeeze particularly hard, due in part to the government mandate to provide more housing. (Brian MacKay/CBC - image credit)

Nova Scotia has a shortage of tradespeople and some in the sector say upcoming projects could suffer due to the lack of labour.

Estimates show the province will need about 11,000 newly certified tradespeople in the coming years up until 2030, said Marjorie Davison, the CEO of the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency,

Davison said in a recent interview that the construction sector is feeling the squeeze particularly hard. That is due in part to the government mandate to provide more affordable housing in the province as the population continues to grow.

"There is that economic expansion that's been happening post-pandemic and the lifting of the restrictions," she said. "There's also the government investment in capital infrastructure for health care and for institutions across the province. The government and (its) priorities are really helping to drive the need for construction."

The province has said it has tagged 37 sites within the provincial land inventory that could be used to build housing, including affordable housing, for Nova Scotians.

Aging workforce

The labour shortage is due in part to an aging workforce, Davison said. In recent years, skilled tradespeople have been retiring without enough younger workers to replace them.

Duncan Williams, president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, echoed the sentiment and said the pandemic also played a part in low labour numbers.

"The pandemic actually expedited the number of people who decided to leave the workforce," Williams said.

"We've been predicting some of the labour challenges we see for probably a decade now, trying to work on programming, et cetera, to make sure that we weren't in the situation. But then the pandemic got thrown upon us and certainly didn't help the situation."

Pandemic woes

Matters further worsened as the pandemic forced employees to hire fewer apprentices and delayed the certification of new apprentices, Davison said.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Contractors are now being "selective" about the projects they take on due to the lack of workers, Williams said. They are also dealing with a shortage of materials in some cases.

Both Williams and Davison agree that secondary issues stem from a lack of knowledge about the opportunities within the skilled trades and that more work needs to be done to market the trades as a lucrative career choice.

"One of the misconceptions is that construction is dangerous, dirty work and not consistent and the fact is it couldn't be further from the truth," Williams said.

"We've had an entire education system that's largely been focused on promoting university and university is a great option, but it's not an option for everybody."

One of the drivers of the shortage dates back to a change in the schooling system that was enacted in the late '90s, said automotive expert Douglas Bethune.

In 1996, the government amalgamated the existing vocational schools to create Nova Scotia Community College. The change meant that students had to pay for vocational training that was once free.

Recruitment campaign

"The community college began to charge tuition and the cost of the re-employment training was no longer looked after by the Department of Education," Bethune said.

"As a consequence of all this ... there's a shortage of tradespeople, and even the students that are graduating in a lot of cases, the employers told me they really don't have a good foundation."

The provincial government sought to take on the issue by announcing a recruitment campaign late last year to support labour market needs in the skilled trades and health-care sectors.

The province said it would create a team of "navigators" to connect health-care workers and tradespeople with information to support their move here. The government also recently rolled out its plan for a tax break on the first $50,000 of income for workers in designated trades aged 30 years and under.

Williams said one of the solutions to the shortage includes focusing on immigration to increase the skilled workforce. Another involves changing the culture of the skilled trade sectors to be more inclusive.

Underrepresented groups

"We need to make sure we do a really good job of tapping into the communities and the people that are out there that may not see themselves in our industry right now," Williams said, highlighting low numbers of underrepresented groups in the trades.

Data from the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency found that just under 16 per cent of apprentices in the province are from "underrepresented groups" in the 2020-2021 year, including women, Indigenous and Black people, immigrants and people with disabilities.

"I think that's going to be key in making sure that they truly do see a safe place for them to work, physically and mentally," Williams added.

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