Training for an uncertain life

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In this 4-part series, TheIndependent.ca looks under the surface of the rhetoric surrounding this province’s ‘labour shortage’ to piece together a series of snapshots of the shifting terrain of the labour market in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the first installment, we explored women’s experience in the skilled trades. Part 2 looked at the growing use of temporary foreign workers. Part 3 explored the debate heating up around wages and costs in this province.

Part 4

Jeremy studied plumbing. It was a field he was drawn to ever since high school: the successful product of a new provincial government initiative to encourage youth to enter the trades. At first, everything seemed to go smoothly. He worked hard at his studies, graduated successfully, and got hired about a month after his graduation.

And then he got laid off.

And then what he thought was a short-term glitch, turned into a pattern.

“The work is good, the money is good…but being on the job site and getting laid off, it gets annoying. I’d say in the past two years, I’ve probably only been working about eight months.”

“They lay off a bunch of people and then hire another crowd a couple months later.” —Jeremy

“An example is Long Harbour. I was there for five weeks, that was all the work I got out of it. They lay off a bunch of people and then hire another crowd a couple months later.”

“It’s not how a job is supposed to be ran. If you give up a job opportunity, there’s one road you could have taken, but you never did because you had this opportunity. Then they lay you off and you’re back at ground zero. It’s not a good way to be running stuff.”

Jeremy, like others who were attracted by the ads promoting the skilled trades as a viable career option, were expecting to graduate and be able to settle down to regular, permanent work. What bothers him the most is there was no expectation that once he graduated with his trade, work would be sporadic, unpredictable, and subject to frequent layoffs. It’s difficult, he said, to plan your life around such an uncertain and unpredictable profession.

Hard to build a life in construction

Part of this is the nature of the industry, says Gus Doyle, executive secretary-treasurer with the Newfoundland and Labrador Regional Council of Carpenters, Millwrights and Allied Workers.

“As they move through the phases of a construction project, whether it’s a building in St. John’s or a Hebron project, they all go through phases… A lot of people don’t understand that it’s a boom and bust industry. and when you finish one job you move on to the next. And there could be four or five months in between. The young apprentices getting started are the ones finding difficulty getting work.”

Doyle says that part of the problem is that young people entering the trades aren’t being well enough educated on which trades to go into, or what type of lifestyle to expect once they’re there.

“Young people are being encouraged to go into the construction industry. They don’t do enough research on which trades they should actually get into. They listen to the promotions from the private schools…And in construction at peak times there is shortages. But it’s at peak times.”

“I think there needs to be some additional work done on promoting the trades that actually have shortages, and encourage young people to consider those trades as a career…Young people coming into construction don’t realize that 99% of construction work involves traveling. There’s only unique periods when you get the jobs in your backyard. Many of them are not residential.”

More workers, more shortages

Efforts to address the projected labour shortage have produced problems of their own. As large numbers of apprentices graduate, there’s a shortage of journeypersons to supervise them. Another problem is that companies prefer to hire more experienced workers, and there are already plenty of those in other provinces. So many of the apprentices graduating in this province find themselves forced to leave in order to get the experience to get re-hired here down the road: a fate they had hoped to avoid.

Jeremy said he doesn’t understand why government doesn’t require large employers to hire a certain number of first-year and second-year apprentices, to ensure local graduates get the jobs. But Doyle says government and the unions are working to address the problem.

“I think there needs to be some additional work done on promoting the trades that actually have shortages.” —Gus Doyle

“We’ve increased the number of apprentices on the job sites. Unions and government are working on this together. Compared to five years ago, the amount of apprentices getting on the job sites has more than doubled. The job sites are more open and inviting for apprentices, and government has done wage subsidies. There are some great things happening. In construction you have to be patient. It’s not every day you can get the job that you want.”

In Jeremy’s case, he wasn’t picky about the job: he just wanted regular work. But Doyle points out that the large contracting companies don’t often guarantee steady work.

“When they get hired on, the scope of that contractor’s work may only last for a few weeks. It depends upon the phases of the project. It goes back to the way the construction industry operates. Sometimes you can get into one part of the project, it can’t move forward, which slows down the rest of it. Maybe it rains and the ground gets too muddy, it slows down everything. A lot of things happen on a site.”

Despite the uncertainty, he still feels it’s a viable career for young people to pursue.

“Yes I would recommend it. There is a good future in the trades. The trick is to understand what trade you’re taking. Is the trade going to have a shortage? Are there going to be opportunities to move into? You should understand this is a boom and bust industry, and in order to be continuously working, you might have to travel outside your home.”

Going away so you can come back

This was Jeremy’s experience. After discovering it was impossible to find steady work in town, he went away to Alberta. He eventually got enough experience to be re-hired by a company in this province. But he feels if there’s a labour shortage, the province shouldn’t be letting hundreds of new graduates leave because companies won’t hire them.

“You go through a nine-month course, you’re paying $15,000 for the course, and there’s no guaranteed work. A lot of people are moving away. They say there’s a shortage of trades here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and most of the reason is the people with the skills are all away. They got work up away and that’s where they go.”

In his own case, he’s giving the local labour market one more shot. He’s decided the large companies can’t be trusted for steady work, and instead he’s applying to smaller companies in St. John’s. He’s a bit bitter about his experience with the large companies. While he was waiting for a call back for a job in Long Harbour, a smaller company in the city offered him work. He turned it down, because he’d been told to expect a call for work in Long Harbour, which would offer better pay and experience. Sure enough, he got the call for Long Harbour, but then got laid off again after five weeks. Frustrated, he decided maybe with more experience he’d get more steady work, so he applied to go back to school for more training. He was accepted, but just before his new course started, he got offered a job in Labrador.

“I figured it was good work, good money. But I went up to Labrador and after two weeks they laid me off. I’m just fed up with it. I figure if I can get the job I’m trying to get now [with a small local company] I’ll stick with them until I get my journeyman. I’m not gonna care about these big projects any more. If the big projects call me, I’m gonna turn them down…I’m not going after the big money, the big companies. I’ll stick with a company in the city and get my journeyman.”

“But if that doesn’t work I’m gonna go back to Alberta. There’s not much else I can do. I’ll pack my bags and go.”

Predicting the future

Dr. Doug May, an economist at Memorial University who specializes in labour mobility, is familiar with the difficulties workers like Jeremy are facing.

“I can understand their frustration…The development phase isn’t a continuous one like you might find in the medical field. The shortages are short-lived.”

While overall the outmigration is slowing, he says, that doesn’t mean those entering the trades won’t be subject to some degree of it.

“Net in-migration says people are coming back and finding jobs. You can talk about these general movements, but it still can be very frustrating for workers on the margin, trying to find jobs, and hoping and being led to believe that it’s going to be easy. But it’s not. And the workers on the margin are typically youth and women. I think things have improved, and there are opportunities. The market in the trades and the opportunities for young Newfoundlanders will improve, but that doesn’t mean, when you go case by case, that you won’t hear a lot of these types of stories.”

Predicting labour markets is a difficult task. But when meeting skills shortages requires years of training, accurately assessing needs and shortages can be vital. Earlier this month, the federal government announced an effort to avert a “skills crisis” by establishing a website allowing users to review projections for available jobs in different fields and different regions of the country. Last month, Statscan announced plans to launch a new monthly job vacancy survey to help gather data on exactly where the labour shortages are (perhaps in response to heightened publicity around the difficulties in making accurate labour market predictions). And just last week, the provincial government released a report suggesting there will be 70,000 job openings in the province by 2020.

May acknowledges the difficulties all parties face in trying to translate labour market predictions into life decisions.

“Labour markets are a very dynamic thing, so you could have shortages occurring in one sector and not in another.” —Doug May

“Labour markets are a very dynamic thing, so you could have shortages occurring in one sector and not in another. And it takes time to train people. It takes time for the economy to adjust. “

“You’re going to get these natural adjustments. They’re not instantaneous. What you can do is to try to get younger workers better labour market information.”

The provincial government has introduced a number of initiatives during the past several years to address just that need. Minister of Human Resources, Labour and Employment Darin King highlighted his government’s commitment to helping prepare the province’s workforce for the shortages that are coming.

“We’re certainly aware of what the labour market is going to be facing us. We’ve launched the Youth [Retention and Recruitment] Strategy, the Immigration Strategy, and the Jobs In Newfoundland and Labrador website. The thing about the labour challenge is that it’s also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have an interest in retraining, in new careers. Our focus is making sure people are aware of what’s out there. If you look at our youth retention strategy, at our apprenticeship hiring program…we’re doing all of those things because we want to make sure we’re as supportive of the people in Newfoundland and Labrador as possible.”

Training…and retraining

In addition to getting younger workers better labour market information, there’s also the option of retraining older workers with the skills to meet the new shortages even as work in the industries they were originally trained in dries up (for example, the fisheries). Yet that can be complicated as well. A recent study by researchers from the Department of Geography at Memorial University compared the labour market policies of Newfoundland and Labrador with those of Norway (which also faces the challenge of large and remote rural municipalities, and has had considerable success in helping its unemployed workers find employment). Among the differences the study noted was that in Norway, employment assistance offices were highly decentralized, with local offices given much greater flexibility to make their own decisions about how best to carry out their role. “In Newfoundland and Labrador, however, employment programs are generally designed in the top-down manner with little room for local knowledge to be incorporated.”

An additional difference lay in the level of support provided by those offices. In Norway, employment assistance offices, even in remote rural regions, have a staff-to-client ration of 1 to 80. In rural regions of this province like the Twillingate-New World Island labour market region, the staff-to-client ratio is 1 to 716.

Minister King acknowledged that retraining is going to be an increasingly important part of the equation in meeting the labour shortage, and expressed his government’s commitment to supporting retraining initiatives.

“We are continuing to try and understand that there’s going to be a wealth of opportunities over the next 5-10 years in the province. We want to make sure that everybody in Newfoundland and Labrador takes advantage of those opportunities and has themselves prepared for it. If you’re in the retail business, there’s opportunities to allow you to move beyond the retail business, maybe into a skilled trade, if you’re prepared to look at what’s coming, and come back to do some retraining. And that’ll help ensure a good future for yourselves and your families.”

Meanwhile, Jeremy is still waiting to hear back from the local company that represents his last chance to get a job in this province. His final word of advice was for new apprentices to avoid the large companies.

“It’s really hard. Trying to get ahead, you need a certain amount of hours, and if you’re only on a job site for a couple of hours, it’s going to be impossible to get your journeyman. I graduated in 2007, and I’m only a second year. It’s almost 2012 – I should have my journeyman now.”

“People getting out of school [should] get on with a company in the city. A local company. Don’t go for any big companies, like the big national or international companies, because you’re not guaranteed permanent work. Either that or go to Alberta. They say it’s work work work here but I mean, I haven’t seen much of it from my point of view.”