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Manufacturers Face Labour Shortage


David MacLean.

Given everything Alberta businesses have endured since 2014, it’s counterintuitive, yet nonetheless true: manufacturers in Alberta, especially SMEs, are having more and more trouble finding the workers they need.

Two thirds of manufacturers are reporting labour shortages today and, three quarter believe the situation will get worst in the next five years. The last of the baby boomers are retiring, and the new generation is not there to pick up the torch. As a result, the manufacturing sector is on the verge of a crisis.

To be sure, this is not an Alberta problem – it’s true across Canada. Nationally there are more than 50,000 unfilled jobs in manufacturing – a startling statistic that threatens the competitiveness of Canadian industry.

It’s not unusual for successful manufacturers to put off growth plans because they don’t have the people they need to support the expansion. Many forego investing in new machinery and equipment that would make their production cycle quicker and more efficient because of the lack of skilled workers to operate new equipment. Some even have to turn down contracts because they just don’t have the bandwidth.

Throughout the month of October, Manufacturing Month, we organize field trips and invite students to tour manufacturing plants and take a peek inside the doors of a manufacturing operation. Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters’ (CME) Women in Manufacturing program is designed specifically to encourage more women and girls, a sadly under-represented demographic, to consider careers in the sector. These efforts will move the needle over time, but more must be done.

We, as parents, hammer in our children with the idea that a university degree is the only sure path to career success and that is simply not true. Manufacturing offers a wide-range and rewarding well-paid and safe trade jobs, from CNC machinists to woodworkers. The vast majority of Canadians who work in the manufacturing sector are satisfied with their careers and an astonishing 90 per cent would recommend to a friend.

We also need to make sure that newcomers to the industry have the skills to hit the ground running. With advances in industry 4.0, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing, manufacturing is innovating at rapid pace. School curriculums and apprenticeship programs have yet to catch-up.

On this front there is a bit of hope to be found in the McKinnon Report on Alberta’s Finances. The report’s authors bluntly note that the province does not link funding of post-secondary institutions to the achievement of specific goals or even meeting skills requirements for the current and future labour market. They recommend that government work with post-secondary stakeholders like CME to set an overall direction and labour market goals for the system.
We will be at the table for that discussion.

Despite the oil and gas downturn in recent years, attraction and retention of skilled labour remains a key challenge for Edmonton’s manufacturing community. There’s no silver bullet to address the labour challenge. Governments, post-secondary institutions and industry must be at the table and work together toward lasting solutions.

Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) is the voice of Canadian manufacturing. CME represents more than 2,500 companies who account for an estimated 82 per cent of manufacturing output and 90 per cent of Canada’s exports.