Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Looking for Mr. and Ms Right

January 25, 2006
By Mary Del

Dave Santi’s biggest challenge is finding “quality” apprentices. The manager of human resource development for Hamilton, Ont.-based Dofasco says the steel manufacturer, which accepts up to 40 apprentices a year, is competing for top-quality apprentices and tradespeople with manufacturers across Canada.

“We have had years where we have not been able to meet our recruiting numbers because the
quality and the number of apprentices has just not been there,” says Santi. “Across Canada, everyone is looking for apprentices and tradespeople, so we have to compete with them for the same resources.”

A quality apprentice, he says, is someone with technical, leadership and communication skills, and is also a team player and problem-solver. This Cadillac of candidates, the elusive apprentice or potential employee that possesses both the so-called “hard” and “soft” skills, is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

The Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters’ (CME) 2005-2006 management issues survey, Winning Strategies for the Future, studied this problem. Respondents identified problem-solving, technical skills, teamwork, supervisory and management skills, innovation, and basic employability skills like timeliness, work ethic and personal responsibility, as the skills that are least satisfactory among current employees.


Of the 942 companies from across Canada that participated in the survey, 37 per cent identified the availability of skilled and experienced personnel as a challenge. In addition, more than 10 per cent of manufacturers and exporters reported difficulties filling positions for entry-level employees, engineers, equipment operators, sales and marketing personnel, maintenance personnel, plant managers, machinists, designers and electricians in 2005.

The fact that entry-level employees topped the list as the most difficult to attract and retain is a reflection of the difficulty companies face in finding people with those basic employability skills, says Jayson Myers, senior vice-president and chief economist for the CME.

“One of the biggest areas where we’re lacking [is] people with very basic employability skills in manufacturing; people that you can rely on to come to work on time, be there every day, take personal responsibility for their own health and safety and those of their colleagues; people who have the very basic capabilities of solving problems [and] working in teams,” says Myers.

These issues were echoed by participants at a think tank meeting hosted by McMaster University and Mohawk College in Hamilton in November that explored changing industry needs in technology education. Participants identified soft skills as an area that needs to be developed in the recent graduates they see, and would like more schools to incorporate these into their curriculums.

“We need doers, thinkers and leaders,” said MaryLynn West-Moynes, president of Mohawk College, at the meeting. “And more and more, we need those attributes in the same person. We are looking to provide programs that will give people the opportunity to develop skills in all these areas.”

The CME’s Myers suggests that greater collaboration, co-ordination and communication between manufacturers, high schools, colleges and universities is needed.

“It’s important for colleges to keep working with industry [to] make sure that they’re providing the courses and setting up the training programs in response to what industry needs,” he says.

Mohawk College has a reputation for working with industry to ensure it arms its graduates with the necessary knowledge and skills. The college has won two Yves Landry Foundation awards in the last four years – one for outstanding industry-education partnerships and the other for outstanding technical co-operative education programs.

“We continue to listen to industry through frequent meetings with advisory committees,” says Cheryl Jensen, executive dean in the faculty of engineering technology at Mohawk College. “In these meetings, employers tell us about new technologies and skills that they need to see in our graduates. Increasingly, we hear from employers that graduates need more training [and] education in the soft or employability skills,” she says.

McGill University’s master in manufacturing management (MMM) program is another that has strong ties with industry. Professor Vince Thomson, founder and co-director of the program, says that when they designed the program more than nine years ago, they consulted with more than 30 companies to learn what industry wanted to see in a graduate from such a program. Now, says Thomson, they have an industry advisory committee that meets once or twice a year to provide input on the program. He also keeps in contact with the supervisors and managers that accept MMM students for their mandatory work term. From them, he finds out if the students have the right knowledge, skills and attitude for the workforce, and whether or not they find them useful.

Dr. Joseph McDermid, director of the master of engineering, manufacturing engineering program at McMaster University, which is undergoing final approvals, says he would like to see universities teaching more communication skills.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “one of the constraints that we operate under is that we have accreditation requirements that we have to fulfill, and those requirements, in terms of the number of instructional hours, are quite onerous. The workload that we presently have our students under is quite large. So as a faculty, we really struggle with trying to make sure that we don’t overload the students, but that we give them a good measure of the soft skills.”

Changing attitudes
Ongoing communication between colleges, universities and industry is only half the battle when it comes to ensuring that Canada has a skilled workforce. To arm students with the right skills, we first have to fill the seats in the technical programs, and that means reaching parents and students long before they are ready for post-secondary education.

“I think the number one problem happens to be public perception of technical education. It has a negative stigma that is absolutely untrue,” says Robert Magee, president and CEO of the Woodbridge Group, a manufacturer of automotive urethane technologies based in Mississauga, Ont.

Beverlie Cook, project manager for the Skilled Trades Promotion Project, agrees.

“Skilled trades suffer from a perception that they are dirty, badly paid, are physically demanding, and dominated by males. For the most part, nothing could be further from the truth,” says Cook.

To address this issue, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF) and Skills Canada (SC), with the help of the Government of Canada, launched a campaign in September 2004 to promote careers in the skilled trades, and to encourage employers to hire and retain more apprentices. Called “Skilled Trades: A Career You Can Build On,” the campaign will continue until December 2006.

Industry, too, needs to change its attitude. Jayson Myers says that, based on the results of the CME’s recent survey, there is a great deal of complacency in industry surrounding the looming skilled trades shortage. He says that when asked what their strategy is to address future labour needs, a lot of companies say they will put greater emphasis on recruitment, and bring more immigrants into the workforce.

“But everybody else is going to be doing the same thing,” says Myers. “The issues are going to get worse…We’re competing at all levels today in a global economy, and one of the key areas that we’re all competing for is access to those skilled workers, and this isn’t something that we can just take for granted.”
Dofasco is aware of the looming skilled trades shortage, and is taking measures to ensure it continues to stay competitive. Along with working with community colleges and organizations like the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum to promote its apprenticeship program and ensure that the curriculum meets its requirements, the company has been implementing automation into its processes to achieve more with fewer people.

Dofasco started a project two years ago to revamp all of its finishing processes. The capital investment, which mostly focused on automation technologies, was $700 million. The project is about two years away from completion.

“We’re doing this strategically in such a way that when those facilities are fully capable and up and running…as people retire, we won’t have to replace them one for one,” says Bill Gair, Dofasco’s manager of corporate communications. “We would instead be implementing automation within our manufacturing facilities, to achieve far more with fewer people.”

Moving ahead
“We all have to do our part if we want a skilled workforce to meet changing business needs,” says the Woodbridge Group’s Robert Magee. “That includes industry, business, governments, educators, current employees and future employees…We have to talk more about the success it has brought to the
people who have taken those courses.”

Magee is working with the Canadian Automotive Human Resources Sector Council (CAHR), in co-operation with the Ontario and federal governments, on an industry tours program, which would give parents, teachers, students and guidance counselors the opportunity to see what a modern industrial plant looks like.

“Our goal [is] to make sure that every kid and every teacher sees two factories a year from grade 6 onwards,” says Magee. “Because seeing is really believing. And exposure is also very motivational.”

Magee says that he hopes the program will be up and running by the 2006-2007 school year.

Port Credit Secondary School, in Mississauga, Ont., is also taking positive steps towards exposing students to the skilled trades. Last September, the school launched a four-year science and technology program for students, starting in grade 9, called SciTech. It’s the first program in the Peel District School Board to offer a science and technology specialization for secondary school students. The school plans to enrol up to 100 students in the program each year.

“We need more young people going into this field,” says Jan Courtin, the school’s principal. She says that schools need to offer more alternatives for students.

The “hands-on, minds-on” program incorporates everyday life applications of science and technology, and has a focus on literacy and mathematics. It takes an inquiry-based approach, urging students to apply their creativity and discover solutions to real problems and issues. The program also includes work-oriented experiences like co-op placements, visits to science and technology-related businesses, lectures from experts in the field, and networking opportunities with colleges, universities and industry in areas like manufacturing.
The school spent $3.8 million in renovations to create a manufacturing floor in the high school to give students hands-on experience.

Dofasco reaches students earlier than high school. The company is working with the Halton Board of Education to educate grade 8 students about the manufacturing industry.

“It’s about making sure that kids stay interested in science and math, and the possibility of how these things can lead into careers,” says Dofasco’s Dave Santi.

As part of the program, the company teaches the health and safety elements of working in a manufacturing plant. Students get exposure to how companies make money and why is it important to show up for work on time. They also work in teams to solve problems.

Over the last five years, the company has put about 600 students through the weeklong program.

“The challenge is for corporate Canada in other communities to turn their workplace into laboratories and partner with education to get young people interested. And I think if we can influence half a dozen kids in the room to get into the skilled trades,” says Santi, “we’d be much better off.”

The company has already seen the benefits of its program. One of its 160 apprentices was among the first of the grade 8 classes to visit Dofasco. Indeed, the company is on its way to making sure that in the coming years, Dofasco won’t have difficulty finding quality apprentices.

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