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Geoff Johnson: If you want a secure future for your kids, consider the trades

There's a significant shortage of skilled tradespeople
It's predicted that by 2028, there will be more than three-million job openings in the skilled trades, which pretty much leaves room for anyone interested in a rewarding career, writes Geoff Johnson.

As anyone who has ever called a plumber or an electrician to their house knows, tradespeople aren’t exactly in plentiful supply in B.C. in general, much less in the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island.

Yet Canadian parents have traditionally been reluctant to encourage their children to go into trades schools, and analysts who follow the labour market are predicting significant shortages of skilled tradespeople.

Some parents, especially those with a non-trades background themselves, tend to overlook the advantages of a trades career for their son or daughter.

To complicate matters, the majority of secondary-school teachers are in that profession because they themselves are academically, not trades, oriented people.

But a life as a tradesperson can be both personally and financially rewarding for high school grads.

Right now, the skilled trades have plenty of opportunities for those looking for long-term work.

In fact, it’s predicted that by 2028, there will be more than three-million job openings in the skilled trades, which pretty much leaves room for anyone interested in a rewarding career.

And some skilled trades are close to recession-proof. Utilities like electricity and plumbing aren’t going anywhere anytime soon — even in a substantial economic downturn, there’s always demand for people with trades skills who can work in these specialty areas.

Yet many parents, rightly or wrongly, cling to the notion that their child should be university-bound, despite the fact that, according to StatCan census data, fewer than one-fifth of Canadians age 25 and older — four million people — have a university degree.

Another 3.2 million, or 16 per cent, held a college certificate, while only 2.4 million, or 12 per cent, were qualified in a trade.

While the proportion of university graduates looking for work increased by almost 52 per cent in the last decade, the proportion of Canadians who earned a trade qualification and immediately found steady employment increased exponentially.

B.C.’s education and advanced education ministries and post-secondary institutions collaborated on a report published in June called the Student Transitions Project, which focuses on the transition of B.C. Grade 12 graduates into public post-secondary institutions. It is heavy on statistics and data analysis, as opposed to anecdotal reporting, but the numbers are revealing.

Roughly 42 per cent of Grade 12 graduates over the last five years attained grade point averages of 75 per cent or higher — about 19,000 — but only half that number, about 9,600, enrolled in a B.C. university.

So of the 46,000 potential high school grads in B.C., less than 20 per cent enroll in a B.C. university.

Only about half those who were university-bound made the immediate transition to post-secondary education.

The number of students entering colleges and technical institutes after a delay of one, two or three years (13 per cent) is more than double the share who enrol immediately (six per cent).

Again, it could be hypothesized that it takes some time for some non-university-bound grads to decide on a career direction, especially a trades-oriented education.

Trades training usually take from one to five years. Most apprenticeship programs take four years. The technical training usually takes place in a classroom or shop setting at a public institution such as a college or institute or approved private training institution.

Then there is the phenomenon called “entry shock,” which causes some first-year post secondary students to drop out.

According to the Student Transitions Project report, the magnitude of entry shock for immediate-entry students of 2020/2021 was greater in university program areas such as arts and sciences, business and management, and engineering and applied sciences.

Students who entered trades programs, however, did not experience any entry shock and were much more likely to stay the course and experience early satisfaction with their career choice.

In fact, when you compare the academic performance of these students in high school to their first term in a trades program, they improved their academic performance by an average of five percentage points.

One possibility, and I know of several examples of this, is that the academic rigour of high school was challenging for these students, who achieved greater success in a trades program, compared to their high school experience.

There are too many trades-training institutions in B.C. to list in this column, but an online search of the WorkBC website,, provides plenty of information about access to trades-training programs.

The irony of all this is that of the Canadian provinces, B.C. is probably the best situated to provide kids with a trades education.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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