Attempted to hire a carpenter lately? A plumber? An electrician? It’s no secret that with the amount of construction underway in Halifax there is an acute shortage of skilled labour across the province. 

So short that some projects, including public schools and apartment buildings, could be delayed years despite having financing and zoning approvals in place. 

A month ago, Jill Balser, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Labour, Skills, and Immigration announced a slew of changes worth $100 million over three years aimed at turning out more tradespeople faster. Today’s article digs into the proposed changes. First, here’s a brief primer on how the apprenticeship process works.

To become a certified skilled tradesperson, an apprentice is matched with an employer who provides the hands-on training and supervision that makes up 80% of the learning. 

The apprentice puts in a number of hours (a process that usually takes years), progressing through three or four levels demonstrating they have mastered certain skills or “competencies.” Twenty percent of the training is in a classroom. Then the apprentice must pass a final, multiple-choice exam to become certified. 

Only about 43% of the people who start out as apprentices complete the journey. 

Many of the changes announced by the province last month — grants and financial assistance to pay for tools, laptops, transportation, and childcare — are designed to encourage apprentices to stick with the program and boost the completion rate to 60%.

Prior to becoming an apprentice, a person may have chosen to attend a community college to take a one or two year course in trades such as carpentry, plumbing electrical, and HVAC. 

Starting this summer, tuition fees will waived for carpentry programs and perhaps other trades that are still to be determined. 

A condensed or “accelerated” six-month carpentry course will be offered as pilot project. 

By next fall, students in one area of the province may be able to take a trades course from an instructor in a different part of the province without leaving their home community. The lecture or training may be provided online or virtually (a byproduct of COVID) but the students watching from the satellite location will be supported by a teacher’s assistant. This “hub and spoke” model worked well for business programs and is now being adapted for trades learning. 

“We are trying to open up more channels to capture people interested in the trades,” said Andrew Lafford, acting dean of Trades and Technology at NSCC. “We are committed to making these changes — we know it’s a big priority. Everybody can feel this in our own lives. We’re living it.”

Angela Graham is a manager in Trades & Technology at NSCC. She’s also a Red Seal welder. Graham participated in the Minister’s Panel on Apprenticeship, which began meeting to discuss changes back in December of 2023. 

“With rising costs and the housing shortage, the apprentice making the choice between education and work is a complicated one,” says Graham. “Being able to provide different modalities creates accessibility and provides financial freedom because students don’t leave to leave their home area for eight weeks of training.”

An alternate and increasingly popular pathway for a person interested in learning a trade is to sign up for one of 13 courses run by a union in the building trades. 

The Building Trades Union website offers courses for potential crane operators, carpenters, electricians, bricklayers, pipefitters, and glaziers (think of all those glass towers going up). They are geared to preparing workers to work primarily on commercial and institutional projects.

In the construction industry, this route is referred to as “direct entry.” These pre-apprenticeship courses usually last two to six months (different trades have different criteria), at which point the person is ready to be matched with an employer to begin their apprenticeship journey. 

Brad Smith, the executive director of the Mainland Building Trades Council, tells the Examiner more immigrants and internationally trained workers are coming through their doors. Smith says there are approximately 16,000 Industrial/Commercial/Institutional trades professionals employed in Nova Scotia today and 12,000 are unionized member of various building trades. 

The process of matching apprentices with employers is managed by the NSCC on contract to the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency, which makes the rules and sets the standards.

“There is probably a higher demand for direct entry right now,” says Graham, the manager in Trades & Technology at NSCC. “We know there are companies that can’t bid on jobs because they don’t have the people to do the work. More companies are doing their own training and pulling people in through direct entry.” 

The process is faster than the Community College programs.

In mid-October, just a few days before the province announced its overhaul of skills training, the federal House of Common’s Finance Committee visited Halifax to hear ideas to help guide decisions for the next federal budget in 2024.

One of the people who spoke to the Committee was developer Norman Nahas, who said:

The reality is that even though new approvals are coming through the federal and provincial governments to incentivize growth in housing, the crux is going to be logistically getting it done. Design is long process. The cities try their best to try to hire additional people, but it seems that when they hire more people, there are additional roadblocks and departments that need to get involved. The process from conception to actually being able to put a shovel in the ground — I’m looking at my project right there, out the window. It took about four years from concept to putting a shovel in the ground.

It’s going on to about three and a half years now since it was started. Some of that is because of trades not being available, and everybody’s spreading themselves thin because there is a big demand, as there should be, to check the housing box. Halifax doesn’t have all the trades we need to be able to handle the demand. It’s a chicken-and-egg type of scenario. I believe immigrants and refugees coming in, if they have the skill sets that we need, will help fill the void to enable the industry to move forward in the direction we need it to.

The Liberal MP for Kings-Hants, Kody Blois, asked NSCC president Don Bureaux what the community college needs to turn out more skilled trades people. Bureaux responded:

There are two things… the training equipment and simulators and tools that we need to train a modernized workforce change very rapidly. A federal investment in the infrastructure backbone of the college system in this country to allow our labour to be at the leading edge would be number one.

Number two, and I agree with Norm Nahas, we see our industry partners benefit greatly by a skilled workforce that’s coming through the immigration channels. We need to work collectively with licensing bodies to make sure that when they come to Nova Scotia, they are recognized for the training they received in their homeland.

That piece of the puzzle will require more work. But governments have made changes that could see more newcomers with construction skills arrive here to work (if they can find a place to live, back to that ‘chicken-and-egg thing). 

Under a new stream of the Provincial Nominee Program, workers who have experience in 21 “in demand” construction trades will be eligible to be fast-tracked to come to Nova Scotia. No longer will they be required to prove they have the equivalent of a Grade 12 high school education — Ottawa has accepted a request by Nova Scotia to drop that requirement after employers told the government it has been a barrier to recruitment.

Journeymen encouraged to take on more apprentices

Workers at a construction site in downtown Halifax. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

In the meantime, more changes are coming to the apprenticeship system to try to prevent an even greater labour shortage by the end of this decade. 

Projections suggest 11,000 new certified tradespeople will be needed by then and that means instead of 600 people being certified each year, the province needs 1,000. To do that, the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency is encouraging journeymen (certified tradespeople) to accept three apprentices instead of one or two. 

It’s the second time the ratio of trainers to trainees has changed in the past three years. 

Michelle Bussey, who became the CEO of the Apprenticeship Agency only a few months ago, says journeyman trainers will be offered more money to take on more trainees. The size of that financial incentive has yet to be determined. 

Bussey acknowledges that will be a challenge to reach 1,000 certified tradespeople becoming trainers. She says there will also be money and support for people who may have decades of experience working as a carpenter or welder but who never completed the formal certification process. The idea is to provide a pathway for experienced trades people to get certification so they can then mentor younger workers. 

The Examiner asked Bussey whether changing the training ratio from 2:1 to 3:1 during the apprenticeship period will affect the quality of the worker who graduates from the system, as well as safety on the work site.

“We have clear outcomes and skilled competencies they have to demonstrate,” responded Bussey. “If they are not ready, they won’t pass. I’m not worried about the quality declining because they have to check off the boxes and show their journeyman they have all their skills and then they must pass the final exam.”

Bussey noted that in the past year, the province has changed the apprenticeship ratio to 5:1 to get more crane operators certified.

Changing rules and standards to pump out more skilled trades people may be one way to address labour shortages in the construction industry. Changing attitudes toward the trades by promoting their value to society (people need homes) and as a well-paid career choice is another key. 

Some readers may recall the Participation ads that got people outdoors and moving decades ago, or, the promotional campaign to make drinking and driving socially unacceptable. That said, it may take more than clever advertising to convince young people to join the construction industry. Says Dan Basquill, who works for the NSCC in the Trades & Transportation school:

If we have labour market demand that is going unfilled, it suggests there is a lack of awareness or appreciation among youth of the viability of a career in the skilled trades. Where there is a need, you should build some recruitment strategies. We are hoping part of this work will build awareness and get the word out to students.

March Break and summer camps with a focus on introducing young people to skills used in building are envisioned. How many and how soon remains to be seen.

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

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  1. Jennifer

    You might want to do a similar story n the Skills Development Program in high schools from grades 10-12. Are they developing a culture which sells apprenticeship? Is there senior leadership in the education department with red seal qualifications?
    We need to develop a culture like Germany where apprenticeship is admired. Does the education department have gals and measurements for these programs?

    Just a few thoughts !

    David Nantes

  2. We’ve been here, done that before – many times. Trades people, nurses, doctors, teachers, etc. It’s a cycle endemic to our economic system. The developers, employers, governments are not interested in people having good paying jobs, they want a surplus of trained workers so they can hold down wages and avoid good working conditions and work-life balance. They increase the trained workforce using tax dollars, the private sector gets to supress wages and working conditions, people stop entering those jobs creating a shortage, and repeat. It’s the system that needs changing.

  3. Thank you for this excellent article. My son is involved in the Truck and Transport trade and I have been motivating him to move into a trade that pays a living wage.