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International students could help fill gaps in the skilled trades shortage

The construction industry lost close to 30,000 jobs in 2023 and industry experts and decision makers are looking towards international students to close the void
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Students in Conestoga skilled trades programs. Rob O'Flanagan/GuelphToday

Worker shortages in skilled trades have been plaguing the industry for years and now the provincial agency tasked with promoting careers in trades is setting its sights on a new pool of talent; international students. 

With institutions like Conestoga College bringing in close to 30,000 international students over the last year, there is a push to start attracting newcomers into the trades to help plug some of the holes left in the market. 

MP for Kitchener South Hespeler, Valerie Bradford wants to see the college and province continue to come together and incentivize students coming from abroad into programs that will help build homes, fill contractor positions and other various spaces. 

"We have a lot of students coming here and going into business programs, but there are no jobs in these fields," said Bradford. "We need to make sure that the option is there and they can access these programs to get them into the trades."

She notes that when students come out of college they are working in the restaurant or service industry, unable to find gainful employment with a business degree. If they were enroled in a trade program they would be able to complete an apprenticeship also allowing them to work while in school.

"Another thing is these students have to basically work full-time jobs while attending school and that is not viable, it won't work," she said. "If they can get real work experience while learning and potentially making money, then it's a win, win."

CEO for Skills Ontario, Ian Howcroft thinks that the number of international students coming to the province to learn and eventually stay here would be an asset to the industry. 

"These would be people who would want to stay here after they finish school, so it would make sense to get them in the trades so they can get jobs and good paying jobs at that," said Howcroft. 

Over the next few years the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better as thousands of skilled trades professionals are expected to retire, leaving an even bigger strain on an already depleted workforce. 

According to Statistics Canada’s jobs data, the construction sector lost nearly 30,000 jobs in 2023, despite recruitment efforts by the industry and organizations like Howcroft's. 

"We have been going into schools and really trying to appeal to the younger generation and show them about the trades and how fruitful and necessary of a career path it can be," he said. "It doesn't have to be anyone's second option and if we can get international students onboard, then that would really help." 

Skills Ontario has been contacting schools like Conestoga who they have good relationships with to help with this process.

Howcroft also notes that it is not as easy for international students to get into some of these programs as domestic students. 

He adds that to get into some of these programs and secure apprenticeships they need Canadian working experience.

"Now this doesn't have to be like Canadian construction experience, this could be something like working at a restaurant," he said. 

Conestoga is one of the leading post secondary schools in terms of skilled trade programs as well as bringing in international students. 

Brenda Bereczki, director of corporate communications for the school, said Conestoga’s School of Trades and Apprenticeship currently delivers more than 30 trades programs that are open to international students.

"The college is intentionally building capacity at its Reuter Drive location to further broaden programming and provide more choice for international students going forward," said Bereczki in an email to CambridgeToday. 

The second phase of the expansion of the college's facility will open in 2026 and will help deliver more programming for international students so they can access the skills and knowledge needed for successful careers and help address workforce needs in the skilled trades sector. 

Bradford would like to see an incentive for international students to take these programs to help address worker shortages in the region, saying "this needs to be done now." 

Immigration Minister Marc Miller said last week the federal government is considering a student cap after facing backlash from the public and the strain put on the housing market. 

Bradford said she supports the federal government's new requirements for students needing at least $20,000 in their bank accounts and would also support a student cap if it would help address some of the issues students and residents are facing. 

The provincial government is also looking at capitalizing on the attractiveness of Canadian life to get more students involved with the trades and bringing over trained professionals. 

Cambridge MPP Brian Riddell ran his campaign on the promise of supporting skilled trades in the city and helping bring back a dying industry. 

He notes that although immigration policy is primarily set by the federal government, the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program (OINP) allows the province to attract skilled immigrants to fill current labour shortages.

"The OINP has been increasing its focus on the skilled trades since 2018, and in 2023 issued the highest number of skilled trades nominations in the program’s history," Riddell said in an email to CambridgeToday. 

"To ensure the province is selecting the best candidates available, we recently made changes that would provide the province with greater flexibility to select international students studying in high-demand industries such as healthcare and the skilled trades."

This means students studying in in-demand industries may be eligible to seek a nomination for permanent residence from the OINP. 

Whatever the way to get more workers into the trades, Howcroft is ready with his arms wide open to help breathe life back into the trades. 

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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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