Generation Z: Your last best hope to address the skilled labour shortage

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By Nicolette Beharie

Meet 22-year-old Jadian Mitchell. She is a first-year millwright apprentice who works in Guelph, Ont. Although she is passionate about her work, this career path wasn’t top of mind when she was growing up. In fact, Mitchell didn’t hear about the millwright trade until after she left high school.  

“I actually went to school to be a paramedic,” she admits. “I ended up dropping out because I just didn’t think it was for me. And I actually applied to a millwright program at the same school on a whim.”

While studying to be a paramedic, Mitchell developed a personal interest in auto mechanics in her spare time. She discovered that she enjoys working with her hands, repairing parts and learning about machinery. That’s when her father told her that her late grandfather worked as a millwright. Mitchell’s response was not unlike many young people from Generation Z, those born between 1981 and 1996: “What’s that?”

After doing some quick online research, she learned about the millwright trade for the first time. Shortly after, she decided to apply for the millwright mechanical technician program at her local college. 

Mitchell is glad she found the right career path in the end, but she wishes she discovered her passion for working with her hands earlier. “I didn’t see a lot of push towards the trades,” she recalls of her high school education. “I think there definitely should have been more because it is a very good career. I’m having a lot of fun and I’m enjoying it so far.”

Robert Cattle, executive director of the Canadian Tooling & Machining Association (CTMA), says support for shop classes in schools has been on the decline over the last few decades. “I can walk into machine shop classes—if they even still have them—and these machines are 40 years old. That’s not going to excite your 17 or 16-year-old,” he says. “The school system has dropped the ball as far as our trade is concerned.”

Through the CTMA’s Career-Ready program, the organization aims to be a part of the solution. Working in partnership with the Ontario Council for Technology Education, which represents tech teachers in the province, the CTMA purchases new high-tech machinery to install in high schools throughout Ontario. The program, which is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development through the Skills Development Fund, began as a pilot project in 2018. Career-Ready also helps to provide high school and post-secondary students with work placements, offering employers up to 50 per cent of wages paid, or up to $5,000 per placement.

Young workers needed to fill the skilled labour shortage

While Gen Zs are beginning to enter the workforce, Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce in droves to retire. A recent survey from RBC Insurance suggests that external factors like the pandemic, economic uncertainty and inflation have prompted older Canadians (aged 55-75) to accelerate their retirement. The survey found that 33 per cent of recently retired Canadians say they retired sooner than planned, while 30 per cent of pre-retirees intend to change their retirement date because of the pandemic. These circumstances have employers in the manufacturing industry—which employs a significant number of Baby Boomers—scrambling to replenish the ageing workforce.  

“We need young people to get into our industry because there are a lot of people who are going to be retiring,” says Cattle. “We want to showcase these careers to young women and men because they are very good, well-paying, rewarding jobs.”

Tim Repetski, program coordinator and faculty of Centennial College’s aerospace manufacturing engineering program, says manufacturing facilities today are equipped with highly advanced technology, which many young people are not aware of. “It’s a pretty high-tech industry,” agrees Cattle. “It’s not your grandfather’s blacksmith shop.”

Today, there are various positions within metalworking that make it “an ecosystem unto itself,” adds Repetski. “There are multiple avenues of building a career within it and different levels of education will get you into different spaces within industry.”

Through its manufacturing program, Centennial College hosts tour days and workshops for Grade 8 students to showcase metalworking trades. This helps to expose them to the industry’s cutting-edge technology – an effort to better attract Gen Zs early on in their education. 

Despite the demand for skilled labourers in manufacturing, Mitchell says many of her classmates found it difficult to secure a first-year apprenticeship position. Melanie Winter, program manager at Support Ontario Youth (SOY), says a lot of small- to medium-sized employers lack the resources and availability needed to support a first-year apprentice. 

As a not-for-profit, SOY handles the administrative side of the apprenticeship commitment for smaller companies. The organization also recruits on behalf of small employers and helps connect them to graduates who have signed up for the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program. Last year, Mitchell met her current employer at a SOY boot camp, an event that introduces young Canadians to various trades and provides networking opportunities.

Work-life balance is top of mind for Gen Z employees

This past spring, Deloitte released the findings of its 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey, which revealed that work-life balance is the top consideration when choosing a job. “We very much want to live our lives, while working to do something we enjoy,” explains Mitchell. 

Survey respondents shared that pay, workplace mental health concerns, and burnout are among the main reasons they left their jobs over the last two years. In fact, 46 per cent of Gen Zs said they were stressed all or most of the time.

When it comes to retention of a younger workforce, Deloitte’s survey results should be concerning to employers. However, the data also revealed that one in five Gen Zs and Millennials don’t think their employers are taking it seriously or taking steps to prevent stress and burnout.

Through her interaction with young workers, Winter has learned that a fulfilling job for Gen Zs is “more than just a paycheque.” And Mitchell agrees. “If a place has better benefits, I’m going to apply to that place more than the place that has worse benefits,” she says. 

The Deloitte survey also found that learning and development opportunities are among the top priorities for younger workers. That’s why Winter believes investing in a first-year apprentice offers future payoffs when it comes to employee retention. “They want to know that there are long-term opportunities for growth within the organization and that they would be supported in pursuing those,” she says, adding that taking on an apprentice demonstrates to Gen Zs that you are interested in their growth.

Gen Zs are looking for meaningful work

A sense of purpose continues to play an important role in Gen Z recruitment and retention, according to the Deloitte survey. Younger generations are more likely to stay with their employers for the long term if they are satisfied with their concern for issues like climate change.

Many interventions that “help a company’s bottom line, in terms of efficiency and waste, also help how we are taking care of the planet,” says Repetski, adding that companies don’t always express that well to their employees. 

“When you have a generation that is looking to be a good global citizen, that is something that a company can really grab a hold of and run with,” he says of employers’ efforts to reduce waste. “It can’t be in a binder on a shelf somewhere. It has to be forefront and a part of your communicated business strategy.” 

Breaking down communication barriers between generations

“There’s as much to be learned from the Baby Boomers exiting the workforce as there is from the newer generations coming in,” says Winter. “I think one of the challenges that employers have is trying to figure out how to bring all of them together.”

Steven Bohner, president of Hydra Dyne Technology in Ingersoll, Ont., says much of his workforce is made up of Gen Zs and Millennials. About six years ago, he created an in-house program for older workers on the verge of retirement to share their knowledge with younger workers. The program includes picture-based instructions captured on iPads, which helped to break down some of the communication barriers. Today, Bohner offers the document management system he created, now called DropDoc, as a tool that other employers can use to better support the needs of their multi-generational workforce. 

In the near future, Mitchell hopes to see a lot more Gen Zs working in metalworking trades, as she sees value in the industry and it meets the needs of her generation. “I know I’m going to stick with it because I do genuinely love what I do,” she says. “I can see myself doing this for the next 30, 40, 50 years.” SMT

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