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by Tim Wilson

A report released at the end of last year by PwC found that Canadian manufacturers want to hire but are unable find the right people.

In the report, based on a telephone survey of manufacturers, PwC noted that there was a significant shortage of skilled workers at all levels, from HVAC technicians and welders to engineers. The silver lining is that PwC found significant optimism in the manufacturing sector: 50 per cent of manufacturers intended to hire, with 45 per cent planning to remain the same, and only 5 per cent  expecting a decline in their workforce.

“The Canadian optimism did not surprise me,” says Calum Semple, a partner at PwC and author of the report. “We are hearing a lot of good news from clients. It is beyond primary industries like oil and gas and mining. In aerospace, for example, we are seeing incremental, year-over-year growth, and skilled workers are needed.”

Central Canada is seeing some strengthening in the auto sector, a situation that will hopefully improve as the US economy recovers, but aid might come from an unusual area: the Maritimes. With $25 billion being put into the Irving Shipbuilding contract, some of that money will have to come to central Canada.

 “We don’t have a large manufacturing presence in Nova Scotia,” says Tawse from the NSCC. “A lot of that work will have to be sourced elsewhere, whether for small parts or structural components. For a company that has been producing specific components in Ontario, Quebec, or elsewhere, it would make sense to have a start-up here to source out existing contracts.”

If so, the challenge might then be to get the right person for the job. In the PwC study, half of the Canadian manufacturer respondents said they expect positive hiring over the next 12 months. That’s great news. The trouble was that a full 45 per cent said that the inability to find qualified workers was a significant barrier to growth. 

And though they believe in training, companies often have a hard time getting around to it, which means it is usually up to colleges to solve the problem. Fortunately, in the context of the new shipbuilding contracts, there is time to line up supply with demand.

“A young kid in school now, who is out in two to four years, will have an opportunity to build a career in shipbuilding,” says John Shaw from Seaspan Marine in Vancouver. “We haven’t had an opportunity like this in the marine industry in decades.”

Semple from PwC says that apprenticeship programs are gaining in popularity. 

“We began ramping up our apprenticeship programs two years ago and last year peaked at 300 apprentices in the yard,” says Steve Durrell from Irving Shipbuilding. “We are the largest employer of apprentices in the province of Nova Scotia, and will continue to focus very heavily on effectively transferring the knowledge of our experienced journeymen to the younger generation of shipbuilders.”

To make sure it all works out, Irving Shipbuilding works closely with the NSCC and the Province of Nova Scotia to ensure the apprenticeship program operates smoothly. These players have already begun the process of looking out toward the future needs of the industry.

“We are seeing that companies are more optimistic about themselves than their industry,” says Semple from PwC. While that might sound odd, it is actually a good sign. It means organizations are confident with regard to their competitiveness, and bodes well for Canada’s manufacturing sector heading into 2012 and beyond.

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