EDMONTON-Alberta's largest union organization, the Alberta Federation of Labour, weighed into the debate over skills shortages today by unveiling a detailed new policy paper, entitled "Beyond Chicken Little: Understanding the Need for Measured Reforms to Alberta's System for Skills Training." (Access the report here)
The policy paper was submitted to the provincial government as part of a process aimed at developing a new ten-year framework for labour force development in the province.
"These days, when it comes to discussions about the labour force in Alberta, it's hard not to be reminded of the old children's fable about Chicken Little," says AFL president Gil McGowan.
"No matter who you're talking to, they all seem to be saying that the sky is falling. That's why we think our policy paper is so important. It shows clearly that the sky is not falling - and that there is really no justification to embrace the radical solutions being put forward by some employers and employer groups."
Among other things, the AFL paper uses current statistics to question the notion that Canada has "run out" of skilled trades people. It also highlights serious deficiencies in our current system for apprenticeship training which, if rectified, could greatly increase the number of Alberta trades people available for work.
"Unfortunately, when it comes to the skills shortage, most of our leaders in business and government have misdiagnosed the problem," says McGowan. "And as with anything, if you haven't identified the problem correctly, you probably won't be able to find the proper solutions. With our paper, we hope to put the government on the right track."
For more information call:
Gil McGowan, AFL President @ (780) 915-4599
1. Is Alberta actually short of skilled construction workers?
Alberta has an extremely tight labour market in particular skills, and the cost of labour is rising as a consequence. However, there is no evidence available, aside from unreliable anecdotal stories, that there are actual shortages of any single skill. Nor will the province likely be short of workers in the near future. Government and employer estimates show no real shortages (where demand for a particular skill situation actually exceeds supply) between now and 2009.
The Alberta Construction Workforce Development Forecasting Committee (CWDFC) is a collaborative effort between business and government - involving the Alberta Construction Contractors and Labour Organizations, the Construction Owners Association of Alberta, Alberta Advanced Education, Alberta Human Resources and Employment and Alberta Economic Development.
The CWDFC actually predicts very small surpluses of all construction trades workers throughout the period. For example, this year the Committee predicts a demand for 5980 plumbers and a supply of 6320; a demand for 3655 steamfitter/pipefitters and a supply of 3498; and a demand for 382 boilermakers with a supply of 411.
2. How long will this tight labour market for construction workers last?
Government and employers predict massive reductions in construction workforce demand by 2009. The CWDFC predicts that the construction workforce employed on major projects in Alberta will fall from 24,050 in 2008 to 8,800 in 2009. That means 15,000 fewer skilled construction workers will be employed on major projects in Alberta inn 2009 than the year before. In fact, the Committee predicts double-digit unemployment rates for most trades in 2009.
This shows the extreme volatility of construction employment - from 24,000 working one year to less than 9,000 working the next. Rapid swings in employment like this have made it extremely difficult for apprentices to complete their training in Alberta. Apprentices are often the last hired and the first let go - and without work, there is no apprenticeship the way things currently operate.
3. There are skilled Canadian construction workers who cannot work in Alberta.
For many construction trades, workers must be certified before they can work in Alberta. That means passing Alberta journeyperson exams or, alternately, getting the national Red Seal certification - which allows Canadian skilled tradespeople to work in any province in Canada. Any skilled worker in Canada can take the Red Seal exams.
However, only 16 % (184,000) of skilled workers in the Red Seal trades have their national certification. That leaves nearly a million (968,670) skilled workers who cannot carry move freely from province to province to work. This represents a huge untapped source of skilled workers for Alberta.
For example, there currently 56.3% of all plumbers (20,529) in Canada do not have their Red Seal. As well, 99 % of all ironworkers (9,893) and 84% of all industrial electricians (27,744) have no national certification.
4. How efficient is the Alberta apprenticeship system?
The public school system in Alberta views a 25% failure to complete rate a disgrace at the high school level. By contrast, over half (57.3%) of all apprentices in Alberta fail to complete their apprenticeship within the optimum program time. Even after eleven years, the failure to complete rate is over 40%.
The Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry training Board claims that 75% of apprentices complete their training - however, the Board does not include apprentices who fail to complete their first year in their calculations. That is like a high school not counting anyone who fails to finish grade 10 in their overall failure rate.
5. Do employers fully support the apprenticeship program?
Only 18 % of Canadian employers take on and train young apprentices - although 41 % of all employers had the capacity to do so - according to a recently released joint study by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum and Skills Canada.
6. What about skills shortages in other areas?
Although there are skills shortages in various other sectors, the most notable is health care - where there has been a province-wide - and in fact global shortage of registered nurses for a decade. There is an extremely tight labour market, paralleling the current construction industry situation, throughout the technical and professional health care occupations. In 2005, the unemployment rate for professional healthcare occupations was 0.5% and the unemployment rate for related technical occupations was 0.3%.
Ireland has, since 2002, made tuition free for nursing students. Alberta does not have enough nursing seats at post-secondary schools to even begin to meet the predicted future demand for registered nurses.