Moving to increase diversity in the skilled trades
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Moving to increase diversity in the skilled trades

Promoting the skilled trades for the past three decades, Skills Ontario is now looking to cast a wider net via diversity, equity and inclusion in the trades sector.

To that end, the Waterloo-based organization is hosting a range of online events it hopes will attract more people into the trades and technology industries. Today, for instance, the Persons with Exceptionalities Conference takes aim at students in Grades 7-12 by presenting them with the opportunities in the sector as they begin to think about their future career paths.

That effort goes beyond getting more women and people of colour into the trades, addressing a number of barriers, says Ashley Pszeniczny, Skills Ontario’s manager of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“These barriers are based on people’s age, on their gender, on their physical abilities, and, yes, on their race and their ethnicity, but [also on] their sexual orientation, their income, where they’re located in the province. So it’s a whole bunch of things that make up that pool of people that may face barriers going into the skilled trades,” she explained.

“Maybe they’re a youth at risk – how are they now going to turn around their future? Or maybe they’re an underrepresented population, and how are they going to get into the skilled trades and feel comfortable doing that? Is there support put into place for Indigenous peoples going into the skilled trades, where they feel comfortable leaving their First Nation community to take and pursue their education experience?”

Given the growing shortage of workers in the skilled trades, it’s important to open opportunities to as many people as possible, adds Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft.

“We’ve introduced new programming within our inclusivity series. We did our first session in the summer, in August, for new Canadians. And we’re looking at what else we can do, what else should we be doing to broaden our audience?” he said.

“We have a huge shortage of skilled workers in Ontario and Canada. And we’re not restricted to Canada – this is a global challenge. We’re trying to make sure that students are aware of all opportunities. In addition to our commitment to diversity and equity, we’re also trying to get to the other audiences: we’re trying to better include an engaged small business, we’re trying to make sure that parents understand this, that teachers understand, all the technology teachers understand the importance of skilled trades.”

Those goals are in line with new funding and programs announced last week by the provincial government, which is providing an additional $90 million over three years to further promote the skilled trades to young people.

The funding includes an additional $2.9 million, for a total of $20 million annually, to expand the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), which now has 63 recruiters who visit some 800 schools promoting the skilled trades to students at a younger age.

“Our government is equipping students with the job and life skills that will help them gain access to meaningful and well-paid employment,” said Education Minister Stephen Lecce in a release announcing the new funding. “We have introduced a new math curriculum that focuses on financial literacy, coding, and entrepreneurship, while expanding the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program so that young people have a direct pipeline to good jobs in the skilled trades.”

The province estimates one in five jobs in Ontario will involve skilled trades by 2025. But even as the demand grows, a third of tradespeople are nearing retirement, meaning the province is projected to face a shortfall of 100,000 construction workers, for instance, over the next decade.

To encourage employers to take on more apprentices, the province’s investments in achievement incentives and pre-apprenticeship training will increase to more than $77 million annually starting in 2022-2023. The achievement incentive will also focus on hiring apprentices from underrepresented groups, including women, BIPOC people, newcomers, Francophones and people with disabilities. Pre-apprenticeship program participants can also receive living allowances for costs like rent and childcare.

There’s definitely a shifting landscape, says Howcroft.

“I think from my perspective that there’s a lot more interest, a lot more people understanding what the barriers are. There’s a lot more that still needs to be done, but I think there’s a receptivity to doing that,” he said of increased awareness among educators and employers alike.

“The comments I’m hearing and experience I have is that employers are very receptive to what we’re doing. They engage with us and are participating more, but there’s still a lot more that still has to be done,” he added.

“There are still complexities in the system [about] how they move forward, particularly if you’re coming from an underrepresented group –  this has some challenges. We do have to make sure that the support systems are in place, and that’s what we’re working to do, to try to identify solutions and help people on their educational and career journey.”

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