Canada is suffering from a severe skills shortage in several key sectors, experts say, thanks to factors that include deficiencies in our education system as well as changing demographics.
After bouncing back from the pandemic-era restrictions, the Canadian economy saw record-low unemployment in 2022, as many industries saw severe labour shortages. But even with a potential recession on the horizon, experts say the skills shortage in some sectors could still persist.
Here are some of the skills that will be most in-demand in 2023:
Rosalie Wyonch, senior policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute, believes that digital and STEM skills are "probably the biggest category" of skills lacking in the Canadian workforce.
Back in August, the institute published a report calling on Canada to "increase its supply of people with digital skills." Part of that involves accepting more immigrants with these skills to address the shortage in the immediate term, something that’s already in the works as the federal government plans to welcome 500,000 immigrants a year by 2025.
In recent months, tech companies have also been laying off thousands of workers, which has reduced the immediate labour shortage in this sector. But in the longer term, Wyonch believes all levels of government need to bolster digital and STEM education, not just at universities and colleges, but also all the way down to the elementary level, where math scores in particular have been on the decline across the country.
"We need to think about actually integrating general digital skills and STEM skills at even the elementary and secondary school levels so that, you know, these shortages won’t grow over time and that we’ve got a good foundation of these skills across the entire population to then grow those at the post-secondary level," Wyonch said.
There is a huge demand in the skilled trades, as skilled trade workers are retiring faster than they’re being replaced. According to the Ontario government, the average age of a skilled trade worker in Ontario is 47, but Skills Ontario CEO Ian Howcroft says average ages can be as high as in the late 50s in some industries.
"This is something that’s been ongoing for years and years and decades. But I think the pandemic has exacerbated that by putting a whole lot of other barriers and challenges in place," Howcroft told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Friday.
In the residential construction industry alone, more than 128,400 workers across Canada are expected to retire by 2031, but only 102,100 workers are expected to enter the workforce according to a May 2022 report from BuildForce Canada — a serious challenge as the impending higher levels of immigration are only going to increase the demand for new homes.
Part of the work that needs to be done, Howcroft said, is helping young people be more aware of what kinds of opportunities exist in the skilled trades, noting that there’s long been a negative stigma associated with the skilled trades as "second-class career choices." Last July, a survey from 3M Canada found that three-quarters of Canadians would never pursue a skilled trade.
"In reality, these can be first-class career opportunities with high pay, with pensions, with benefit plans. And again, what we want to do is make sure young people have that opportunity to explore these," Howcroft said.
For years, Canada has seen a chronic shortage of health-care workers that’s only been exacerbated by COVID-19, leading to long wait times for patients and even closed emergency rooms at times.
It’s a problem that can’t simply be solved with more immigration, as many internationally-trained health-care workers struggle to navigate through the bureaucratic process of obtaining a Canadian licence to practice in their field. Wyonch says she understands why Canada’s licensing standards need to be high, but suggests foreign-trained health-care workers could get started in lower-level roles or assistive roles to ease the burden.
"There’s not really a stepping stone or a way for people to help with a shortage in the health-care system by potentially doing those lower-level or assistive tasks that don’t necessarily require a license, but because of legal or policy technicalities they currently do," she said. "So I think that government can really look at easing the transition to the labour market for immigrants that we’re bringing in."
Spaces at medical and nursing schools also need to grow as Canada’s population continues to increase and age, Wyonch said, while noting that the health-care system also needs to work on worker retention.
"You know, it’s sort of like running on a treadmill that’s constantly increasing in speed. If people are burning out faster and faster, we can’t train our way out of that problem," she said.
Staffing shortages have pushed more health-care workers to take on longer hours, increasing burnout and stress. This has caused some to leave their profession altogether, worsening the shortages and creating a feedback loop. Data from Statistics Canada has found that one in four nurses plan to quit in the next three years.
"Obviously, we need to increase enrollment to ensure that there’s enough people coming into the pipeline, but for the people that are already trained and experienced, I think we could do more to prevent losing them," Wyonch said.
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