The population is growing in Nova Scotia and builders can’t keep up with the demand for housing. One of the reasons is the shortage of skilled tradespeople; we can’t produce enough carpenters, welders, electricians, bricklayers, and HVAC technicians fast enough.  

A demand survey of construction companies and unions by the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency showed the province will need 11,000 new certified tradespeople by 2030. That’s roughly 1,000 additional Red Seal professionals a year — a 38% increase over today’s workforce numbers. Premier Tim Houston said training for skilled tradespeople is taking too long.  

“Nova Scotia is a growing province, and we need even more skilled trades workers to build our homes, hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure projects important to Nova Scotians,” Houston said in an announcement on Thursday.

“The way we are currently training these skilled professionals can’t keep up with the level of demand. That’s why I’m pleased to announce a plan to accelerate the growth of the skilled trades workforce.” 

The goal of what Houston calls a “bold” plan is to generate 5,000 new apprentices and 1,000 additional journeyman mentors in three years’ time. The government intends to spend $100 million to get there. Forty million dollars of that will provide a suite of incentives to support people while they spend three to four years getting the hours they need on-the-job to move through several levels of apprenticeship.  

Money, exam anxiety barriers for many

One of the surprises during Thursday’s government announcement was that only 43% of people who begin their apprenticeship training actually complete it. Consultations among the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency, construction councils representing industry, and unions have identified financial and personal barriers that the new plan will address.  

As workers progress through three to four years of apprenticeship, they will be able to receive money to buy their tools and laptops, as well as personalized grants to cover expenses such as child care or gas to drive to the worksite. Some programs will be modified to permit apprentices to work three days a week while continuing their learning online or in person two days a week. There will also be a temporary tuition waiver for training for high-demand skills, including carpentry and plumbing.

Exam fees will be paid by the province until 2026. Exam anxiety is also a big factor, and some testing procedures will be modified so that questions can be read aloud rather than written. The same group that looked at the barriers to apprentices completing their Red Seal certification discovered about one-third have some form of learning disability. The goal of these measures is to boost the retention rate of apprentices from 43% to 60%. If successful, that would make Nova Scotia among Canadian leaders in trades training. 

“We need to be creative and find new ways of attracting and retaining our workforce,” said Duncan Williams, president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia (CANS). 

“CANS is pleased to see the pprovince take action to reduce the skilled trades shortage in Nova Scotia.” 

Two women and three men dressed in suits stand smiling in front of a row of Nova Scotia flags. There is a screen behind them that shows a young woman carpenter. The text on that photo says "Actions for Growing Skilled Trades."
From left, Duncan Williams, president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, Premier Tim Houston, Labour, Skills and Immigration Minister Jill Balser, Jill Provoe, vice-president, academic and equity, Nova Scotia Community College, and Trent Soholt, chair of the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency. Credit: Communications Nova Scotia (CNS)

Incentives are just one change. Houston’s go-like-hell effort to expand the skilled trades workforce will also include changing the ratio of certified journeymen to apprentices. Within the past three years that ratio has changed from one mentor to two apprentices. Now the needle will move again to allow one certified journeyman to train and supervise three apprentices while completing his or her own tasks.  

This is likely to prove controversial. Asked during the briefing if journeyman instructors would receive any financial compensation for this extra work, government officials acknowledged that’s an issue that still needs to be sorted out.  

The government is also exempting apprentices in their final phase of training from requiring supervision by a journeyman on the job site. And trades courses offered through Nova Scotia Community College will be shortened by six months in order to get more people out the door and into the apprentice lane faster. Labour, Skills and Immigration Minister Jill Balser was asked if these changes to training increase the safety risk to workers on job sites. 

“It’s important that employers know they can apply for an exemption to the 3:1 ratio… but this ratio applies to all construction trades across the province,” Balser said.  

“Nothing is going to change in terms of safety. We want to make sure that all of that is maintained on the job force, but as the premier mentioned, this is a way to get more apprentices into the system and that’s what we really need.” 

Improving recruitment

Retention is one part of the solution, while recruitment is another. According to Trent Soholt, executive director of the Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council, more and more construction companies are doing their own on-the-job training. This “direct entry” straight into the work force may partly explain why, despite well publicized labour shortages, this fall’s enrollment at Nova Scotia Community Colleges saw half a dozen carpentry programs and two programs for electricians that were not completely full. Programs with two to seven empty seats that previously had wait lists and nearly 100% employment after graduation.

With 30 cranes working in the Halifax Regional Municipality and apartment buildings going up in communities across the province, the Houston government is impatient to find more workers. It’s applied and received permission from the federal government to bring in immigrants with construction experience who do not have the equivalent of a Nova Scotia Grade 12 education.  

According to officials from the Department of Labour, Skills and Immigration who were Thursday’s briefing, dropping this Grade 12 requirement should remove a major barrier for local construction companies desperate for skilled people, provided, of course, these new workers can find a place to live. This new pilot is called the Critical Construction Worker program and it’s one of the streams being administered through the Provincial Nominee Program.  

The Nova Scotia Construction Sector Council includes employers and unions. Its executive director Trent Soholt was part of the group consulted about this Acceleration Plan. Soholt said he believes these measures will be “effective in reducing barriers” to graduate more certified skilled tradespeople. He said while he is “excited by the opportunity,” labour shortages are just one factor that keeps builders from building. He said supply chain issues and high interest rates are also preventing new housing starts.  

On the recruitment side, Soholt said he was particularly heartened to hear the premier and others use the term “skilled trades professionals.” The Construction Sector Council has been pushing to change public perceptions about trades, particularly as a career path for young people. As well as being financially rewarding, Soholt said the work “offers a valued service and benefit to the community.” 

Beginning next year, the government will offer new March Break and summer camps where children can explore and learn about different trades.     

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. My experience in the military when we moved to an expedited training system to get more technicians “on the floor” to maintain aircraft was that gaps in technician confidence appeared, gaps in supervisor confidence around technicians’ ability to complete tasks occurred, and productivity decreased. It takes 3 years to get 3 years of training, and it takes 10 years to get 10 years of experience. Eric’s point that examination of this pivotal area should have occurred when the idea to increase the province’s population was put into action. Buyer beware when you start “cutting corners”.

  2. Is the “Red Seal Craftsman” trained under this accelerated program going to be as capable as people trained under the old system? Are jobs going to be done as well? Are things going to get missed when you have one person supervising 3 on a complex and potentially large job site? I am all for getting more skilled tradespeople out there, but let’s make sure we don’t cause bigger problems in the future. Would you trust a surgeon who took accelerated training as much as one who took the full number of years training?

  3. They really needed to address this 5+ years ago when they decided that they wanted as many people as possible to come to NS. Well, they are here and more and more are coming everyday. We need to poach skilled trades from other provinces too, but there are shortages everywhere. Shortage of building materials are another issue too. I hope that this works. We need the skilled labour more than anything. In the post-WWII era we brought in many skilled labour from Europe mostly. We may need to do that again.

  4. Hope this rolls out well. Glad to see a focus on some great jobs that are critical to our wellbeing.

  5. I’m not sure why it is so difficult for Conservative governments and their supporters to realize that if you:
    -cut student loans and grants
    -keep minimum wages low
    -don’t provide reliable mass transit
    -don’t control rents
    -don’t provide services like economical and safe childcare
    fewer people will be able to study and apprentice for the several years necessary to learn a skilled trade. Free tuition and other incentives may be helpful, but for many students their biggest expenses are food and rent, not tuition. If you can’t earn or save the money from part-time work before or during the program, incentives are useless. (Of course, the incentives do help the already relatively wealthy keep their money while obtaining certifications for good paying work, thus increasing inequality).

    Add to costs of training a lack of social programs to assist skilled trades people through periods of unemployment when demand is low, and many folks make the entirely rational decision that entering the skilled trades is too costly and too risky.

    A shortage of trades people is a social problem, and solutions require social changes, not individual incentives.