In Canada’s housing crisis, skilled tradespeople as essential as blueprints. Here’s how Ottawa can grow their numbers

Canada is facing its worst housing affordability crisis in decades, putting home ownership out of reach for many young people looking to get a foothold in the market.

Despite federal investments designed to boost housing supply and expedite building approvals, the need for millions of new homes comes with additional challenges. At least as urgent as freeing up land and issuing building permits is the need for skilled tradespeople able to turn blueprints into bathrooms and concepts into kitchens.

Attracting young people to apprenticeship training and supporting their success requires a major rethink in government policy.

Wage subsidies under the Canada Apprenticeship Strategy have done little to mitigate the wave of retirements in Canada’s construction sector and less to address poor completion rates in the skilled trades.

To ensure major new investments in housing are effective, here are three policy recommendations to develop the talented tradespeople so desperately needed to address Canada’s long-term housing and broader infrastructure requirements:

Support enrolment in preapprenticeship and diploma programs

Young people often struggle to convince employers to hire and register them as apprentices without the benefit of previous experience. Preapprenticeship and diploma programs in Canada’s polytechnics are designed to build foundational trades skills and provide some certainty that apprentices are both workplace-ready and committed to making a career in the field. 

Governments could make these programs more appealing for youth by offsetting tuition in high-demand trades and linking employer wage subsidies to registering program graduates as apprentices. 

Bonuses should be applied to employers of record who remain so until the apprentice is certified.

There are a number of polytechnics experimenting with low- or no-cost programs in the skilled trades as a way to attract and engage young people. For example, Humber College in Toronto offers six different tuition-free preapprenticeship programs in high-priority trades. Since trades programming is generally expensive to deliver, government and industry support is critical.

Extend postgrad work permits for international students

With more than 245,000 construction workers set to retire in the next 10 years, domestic students are unlikely to fill the gap. Attracting international students to apprenticeship via diploma programs offers a potential solution but only if postgraduate work permits are of a duration that enables the completion of an apprenticeship. 

This approach stands to attract international students to, and retain them in, occupations experiencing acute labour market demand.  With a stated desire to reform postgraduate work permits, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada might want to look at skilled trades pathways more closely.

Conestoga College in Waterloo has a head start in this area, with an impressive new trades training facility and a track record for enrolling international talent in the skilled trades. 

The institution provides international students with additional resources associated with immigration, travel and housing, easing their transition to life in Canada.

Offset the cost of equipment and unlock industry investment

Like many sectors, technology in the skilled trades is changing at a rapid and challenging pace. To ensure apprenticeship training continues to evolve to meet industry needs, educational providers must provide learners with access to relevant equipment as well as systems and tools that reflect an ever-changing landscape of environmental and building codes. 

The federal government should consider offsetting the cost of purchasing new training equipment in high-demand occupations and encourage industry to do the same through beneficial tax measures.

The scope of what’s possible is illustrated by the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s recent announcement that 45 different industry partners have contributed a combined total of $33 million toward a new Trades and Technology Complex expected to house cutting-edge training facilities and equipment across a variety of trades.

The supply and availability of housing is a multi-faceted challenge, one being experienced in every corner of the country. Municipal zoning regulations and expedited building permits will be ineffective in the absence of skilled tradespeople to fill labour needs. 

Governments working in partnership with industry and Canada’s technical training partners can come together to help solve the crisis.

About the Author

Piers Young, Policy Analyst

Piers Young is a policy analyst at Polytechnics Canada, a national association of the country’s leading polytechnic institutions.