Shortage of trades workers in Fort McMurray as Alberta apprenticeship enrolment drops

·4 min read
With higher oil prices, Fort McMurray is seeing demand for tradespeople, but enrolment in apprenticeship programs has dropped in Alberta over the past five years.  (Andy Shell/Shutterstock - image credit)
With higher oil prices, Fort McMurray is seeing demand for tradespeople, but enrolment in apprenticeship programs has dropped in Alberta over the past five years. (Andy Shell/Shutterstock - image credit)

Enrolment in apprenticeship programs across the province has dropped over the past five years and the shortage of available trades workers is noticeable in the Fort McMurray region where oil prices are up and employers are looking to fill positions.

The Advanced Education annual report shows that over the last five years, there has been a 35 per cent overall decline in apprenticeship enrolment, despite an uptick in enrolment last year. There was a more than 50 per cent drop in apprenticeship registrants in concrete finishing and ironwork generalist. As well, registrants for natural gas compression technicians dropped 40 per cent, and machinists were down by 25 per cent.

Those involved with recruitment and hiring in the oilsands region say the shortage is already causing problems and is likely to get worse.

Keith Plowman, president of the Fort McMurray Construction Association, said with so many people retiring, there just aren't enough people to do all the work that needs to be done.

"It's going to be a problem in the next five to 10 years," said Plowman.

According to the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF), over the next five years there will need to be 256,000 new apprentice recruits, but apprenticeship registrations are down across the country. In 2020, the number of new registrants in Canada dropped by 27 per cent, according to CAF.

Plowman would like to see more young people interested in trades.

"There's a real opportunity for people to make a good living," said Plowman. "If you are training now for a trade, in five years you are going to be highly sought after."

Plowman said multiple construction associations are working on creating an apprenticeship incentive program to help deal with the problem.

Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development & Tourism is also working on bringing more workers into the region.

CEO Kevin Weidlich said the organization is currently applying to be part of Alberta's Rural Renewal Stream — a program that helps identify and recruit foreign nationals to live, work and settle in a rural community.

Fort McMurray is not currently a designated community, but Weidlich expects the program to be up and running in the fall.

"The need for workers in our region is very, very high and it is stifling some businesses to undertake new work," said Weidlich.

Weidlich said there is lots of work and higher oil prices in the region, and the labour shortage is being felt by employers.

Jennifer Irvine, manager of human resources for the McKay Métis Group, said she's had to be creative in recruiting and retaining staff. That includes increasing the base salary and offering housing options. Now, she's considering a retention bonus.

She said McKay Métis will pay for its employees to go to school and they're recruiting from inside the business. Two employees from the fuel and lube division, and are now in heavy equipment apprenticeships.

"It is an employees market, so basically they're interviewing you," said Irvine.

The pinch for trades workers is being felt across the province. In Edmonton, Denis Van Brabant, general manager for Weldco, said there's been a decline in job applications for the last year.

"Finding night shift personnel, finding folks for the weekend has become extremely extremely difficult. The quality of the candidates has gone down," said Van Brabant.

The issues with staffing mean it's been difficult to meet deadlines, Van Brabant said.

"Here in Alberta we enjoyed the luxury of a lot of qualified tradespeople through the good years, when oil and gas was thriving, [but] today there's just not an abundance," said Van Brabant.

"I'm not sure if today's generation doesn't see the trades as a really good solution for their career path."

Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides said in an email that the "lack of enrolment in apprenticeships is a problem," and the government is taking steps to address the issue.

Nicolaides pointed to some work done by the government in 2019, including appointing a Skills for Jobs Taskforce and a $20-million investment into the Skills for Jobs plan. That plan includes plans to expand scholarships and youth outreach.

As well, the province is increasing support for careers by $7.6-million for 2022-2023.

"Trades have just as much value as a university degree and our government will continue to invest in the trades to secure Alberta's future," wrote Nicolaides.

The government also invested $30-million over three years to expand apprenticeship education.