Michael Ouellette, EditorClick image to enlargeBy Michael Ouellette, editor

 It’s no secret that the Canadian manufacturing sector is facing a major problem with a lack of skilled workers. It’s also no secret that this has been an issue for the last decade, or even longer. And while there are many factors working against companies in desperate need of people who understand metal and how to cut or join it, some of this is a self-inflicted wound. 

From the 1970’s to the late 1990’s, Canadian manufacturing had a tendency to solve bottlenecks by using more people. This “throw people at the problem” tactic worked because the cost structure made it justifiable. 

But as we entered the 2000’s, global competition and the rise of low-wage jurisdictions began eroding this advantage, and Canada had a difficult time adjusting. Experts called for broad investment in the newest automation and information technology to boost competitiveness. But few companies heeded the call, leaving Canadian job shops to play catch-up as the rest of the world dug deeper into its competitive advantage, forcing companies to squeeze costs out to reduce prices and compete.

This is where the apprentice issue comes in—small job shop owners were unwilling to bring in an apprentice and pay to train them, only to watch that apprentice leave for a more lucrative opportunity once they had their ticket. It was a conundrum, and combined with the common perspective that manufacturing work was dirty, low skilled and low-paying, it resulted in a generation of students who spurned a career in manufacturing.

Now the problem has morphed into a crisis. Companies can’t take on new work, not because they don’t have the machine time but because there aren't enough people to run the machines. 

Luckily, the manufacturing sector saw the error in its ways and is working to offset the current dearth of young apprentices. Many have relationships with colleges and technical institutes to educate students on the value of a manufacturing career. Organizations like the CME and APMA have awards programs and scholarships for the top talent coming out of schools. 

But maybe the most interesting program is the new Career-Ready initiative from the Canadian Tooling and Machining Association. Launched in 2019, the program gives work experience to 240 secondary school students or recent graduates. The program runs between 10 and 16 weeks, and the students won’t be sweeping floors and fetching coffee. They will work on the shop floor beside skilled tradespeople who have honed their craft, giving these youngsters loads of real-world experience that will drastically improve their employability and add new blood—and ideas—to our already world class manufacturing supply chain. 

Any employers looking to get involved and lock-in some of this new blood for the long term should visit the CTMA’s website at www.ctma.com  SMT

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