Untapped Talent

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by Noelle Stapinsky

Canadian manufacturers need to diversify to answer the need for more skilled workers


If there is one universal concern looming over manufacturers today, it’s the lack of skilled workers and a dwindling, aging workforce. In 2019, KPMG Canada and Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME) conducted a survey of its members asking them about their workforce concerns. Eighty-five per cent stated severe struggles filling vacant jobs. They said immigration levels were not enough to meet demand, and more of Canada’s youth seemed increasingly uninterested or unprepared for careers in the manufacturing world. 

Industry associations, both north and south of the border, have been working tirelessly to build a fresh young talent base. They’re also working on ways to attract and retain more women into the manufacturing world—a portion of our national workforce that is truly underrepresented. 

Women make up 48 per cent of the labour force in Canada, but only 28 per cent of the manufacturing workforce. This is why Rhonda Barnet, the first female chair of CME’s national board in 150 years, started the Women in Manufacturing program. “I had full support of the national board and the manufacturers to make the change and they wanted to have a women lead the charge.

“The share of jobs that women had in the sector hasn’t changed in over 30 years,” says Barnett. “We started in 2016 and by 2017 we had working groups across the country. We did surveys to figure out what the barriers were and what we can do about them.”

Rhonda Barnet, chair of Canadian Manufacturing  and Exporters’ national board,  is also president and COO  of Peterborough, Ont.-based  AVIT Manufacturing, which designs and builds  custom automation  for manufacturers.Barnet and her team used their findings to develop a concept of the three pillars of work that desperately needed addressing. The first one is obvious—women are not highly represented in manufacturing and there are very few role models. “The image of the sector is outdated. It’s still widely viewed as dangerous and a place where only men work,” she says. “And there’s some systemic cultural issues. Much of those have been cleaned up, but there’s still work to be done.” 

CME’s Women in Manufacturing program launched a diversity inclusion tool kit to help businesses with their workplace culture and to make it more equitable and inclusive for all people. It’s free of charge and a simple-yet-comprehensive way to help manufacturers learn how to adjust their culture. 

When the program started four years ago, the goal was to add 100,000 new jobs for women in the sector over five years. It launched a national campaign with the slogan We can do it

“When we started, we were making great progress. There were 476,000 women in the sector. In February of 2020 we had 512,550 positions held by women. But then, overnight, we lost much of that progress,” says Barnet refering to the COVID-19 lockdowns. “Our new baseline is now 453,000 positions held by women in the sector—we are below where we started.”

She continues, “when we pulled apart the numbers we were able to see the age of the youngest child in the home through Statistics Canada. It’s clear the jobs that were lost were women with young children.”

Certainly, the first issue that needs to be addressed is the extraordinary gender gap. A report by the CME advises businesses to listen to the concerns of their female workers and take steps to make the workplace culture more inclusive. Along with being more inclusive, businesses need to explore ways of improving work-life balance. For any worker with a family, shift work takes a toll. But for those in a caregiving role, working outside of regular business hours makes it incredibly difficult to balance a career and family commitments. 

For manufacturers to continue to grow and remain competitive globally, diversifying and helping change how the industry is perceived might just be the ticket to solving the current workforce problems. But if there’s one thing that’s certain, there is still a lot of work to be done and Barnet and the CME are working hard to help facilitate these changes.

Luckily, they are not going it alone. Aside from programs delivered by manufacturing associates across the industrial spectrum, there are many women with successful manufacturing careers using their positions to positively effect the change they want to see in workplace culture and society at large. 

Fresh Perspective
When Madison Griemann was a kid, she would follow her mechanic father around interested in everything he did. Following in his footsteps, she focused on skilled trades, aspiring to be a journeyman since her high school days in the rural prairie town of Moosomin, Sask. 

Griemann recalls her first technical classes in secondary school. “I took a mechanics class. At the beginning the teacher wanted very basic stuff from us, like labeling parts. Me and two other guys went through that task quite quickly,” she says. 

“The teacher gave us another task of pulling apart a small engine and putting it back together. We were done that one fast too. The teacher hoped that project would last a month,” she laughs. “He got us to start working on a metal lathe. The two guys had other interests and I ended up being the last one left on the lathe. So that was my job all year.” 

She was 15 at the time and, given that Moosomin is a small town and there wasn’t a machine shop, she was making replacement parts for local farmers and teachers’ vehicles. “I also did some mill work—I really liked the machining more than the mechanics, carpentry or shop classes I took,” she says. 

She knew she wanted to be a machinist and stay in a small town but realized that choosing one skilled trade may limit employment opportunities. That’s why she enrolled in the Innovative Manufacturing program at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, a post-secondary technical school in Saskatoon. “They offered machining, but also welding, fabrication and basic engineering,” she says. “And a small-town shop might need you to do a bit of everything.” 

This introduction to other processes and technology inspired her to shift her focus slightly. “With machining, you’re thinking about tolerances, sizes and making the perfect part. There’s a lot of math involved,” she says. “With welding you have to be really focused and know what rods you’re using, the temperatures you should be running, how many amps and how many volts. You’re watching your wire speed and there are a lot of settings you need to be thinking about.

“I initially wanted to be a machinist and that was the path I was on,” she continues. “Welding was fun, but I really like fabrication. It has different math components and formulas. It’s sometimes a trial-and-error process, but you use those errors to figure out the formula that might work. It’s a different level of thinking.”

Having graduated June 2020,
this motivated 19-year-old landed her first job. “It’s a job shop that works with a lot of different materials and requires injection moulding, some fabrication and welding. In my position, I’ll be working on a rotational moulding machine. We worked with more metal in school, but we did learn about different materials and did some mould and plastic designing,” says Griemann. 

Finding her spot in the skilled trades, Griemann has been inspired by her father over the years. “He’s always told me to take pride in what you do,” she says. “Some people might say you’re just a trades worker. But he told me you’re never just something as long as you take pride and love what you do. One thing I get from my dad is that he’s always been so hard working and tried to do his best at everything. So that’s what I’m going to do.” SMT

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