By Janet Lane, and
Published in The Globe and Mail

September 5, 2022

A journeyperson certificate in the skilled construction trades is the hottest ticket in the country.

With 700,000 journeypersons set to retire between 2020 and 2028, and billions of dollars to be invested in housing, infrastructure and the green refit of existing structures, the need for new journeypersons has never been greater. Estimates are that 375,000 new apprentices will be needed across the country in the next three years to begin to meet the anticipated void.

And timing is of the essence. When a journeyperson retires, they take with them their expertise and capacity to train replacements. So construction employers desperately need more young people to become apprentices before this happens en masse.

The number of apprentices has declined everywhere in Canada. In Alberta specifically, apprentices dropped by 35 per cent over the past five years. A recent 3M report showed that while the country’s young people are aware that many good paying jobs exist in the skilled trades, 77 per cent of millennials and 84 per cent of Gen Zs surveyed said they would never consider them for a career.

But where else can you earn while you learn? While wages vary depending on the trade and the province, first-year construction apprentices earn an average of about $37,000 a year in Canada. The in-school learning portion of an apprenticeship costs an average of $1,000 to $2,000 a year. Apprenticeship loans are available to offset tuition, housing costs and up to $1,000 toward the cost of tools. What’s more, apprentices can receive a completion grant of $2,000 to help pay off their loans. You can graduate from an apprenticeship debt free. Students in bachelor’s degree programs graduate with an average debt of close to $30,000 with no completion grant.

First year journeyperson wages – which can be earned after graduation through a four-to-six year apprenticeship program (if employment has been steady) – range from $45,000 to $85,000 and more with overtime. After a few years as a journeyperson, incomes are much higher. Skilled trades people earn well over the average income in Canada.

The construction sector is rapidly incorporating digital technology, offers the opportunity to become your own boss and is experiencing immense demand that is expected to continue long into the future. These factors should also make skilled construction trades apprenticeships appealing to young adults.

Another positive to consider: By learning a skilled trade, young people can participate in work congruent with their values – something that a recent Canada West Foundation study showed young people in Alberta, Toronto and Vancouver look for when making career choices. They can help keep the prices of new homes affordable for themselves and the millions of new Canadians who will arrive over the next few years, build much needed transit lines, and aid in the transition to cleaner and greener buildings.

On the flip side, employers must also look at these generations differently. Millennials and Gen Z work to live. They want their lives and careers to reflect who they are, and they want the flexibility to enjoy experiences that matter to them. Construction is often seasonal work with demands for overtime in busy periods. Rethinking the demands on workers, for example by changing the requirement to work such long hours, may encourage some young people to sign on.

Apprentices are usually the first to be laid off when work dries up or a project ends, further reducing the attractiveness of the construction sector to youth. But there are ways to reconfigure so that this phenomenon is not so prevalent. For example, a pilot project in rural Alberta, which has received funding from the province and is spearheaded by the Alberta Construction Association in partnership with some regional associations, is helping the construction industry share employees. Tradespeople with needed skills are able to find jobs with different regions or with other companies when work with their employer temporarily falls off. This in turn can help them build different skills, making them more valuable when they go back to their own employer.

Young adults want work congruent with their values that provides opportunity to enjoy their passions. When they go back to school this year, they may want to look at a skilled trade apprenticeship: It could be just the ticket to a great future.

Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation. Connor Watrych and Jasleen Bahia were Loran Scholars Foundation interns at the Canada West Foundation this summer.