Skilled Trades in the Digital Age
New opportunities at the intersection of old and new career pathways
The digitization of trades demands new skill sets, makes some trades more appealing to a wider range of apprentices and is creating new career and training pathways. For educators, this will require a better understanding of the overlap and differences between trades and information/communications technology and the new opportunities they present to students willing to consider less traditional careers.
The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway, as a combination of digital technologies permeate every sector of the economy and most every occupation – including those in the skilled trades. The digitization of trades demands new skill sets, makes some trades more appealing to a wider range of apprentices, and is creating new career and training pathways.
At the same time, the blurring of lines between information and communications technology (ICT) and skilled trades has created a confusing occupational grey area. The two sectors notably share one feature: both ICT and trades need more workers.
For educators, this evolution in the workplace will require a better understanding of the overlap between trades and digital tech, its extent and limitations, and the new opportunities it presents to students willing to consider less traditional careers.
Size of the prize
The digital economy has been growing at roughly double the pace of the wider economy for more than a decade now. According to the most recent labour forecast by the Information and Communication Technology Council (ICTC), by 2023, the demand for digitally skilled talent in Canada is expected to exceed 305,000. If filled, ICTC expects total employment in the Canadian digital economy to reach more than 2.1 million tech jobs.1
Interestingly, more than half of the current tech work is outside of the ICT sector per se. That means most tech jobs are now in sectors such as banking, insurance, and oil and gas, and in organizations across the entire economy looking to digital technology for better operational, safety and environmental performance.
The rapid growth of the digital economy has outstripped available ICT talent. In Canada’s major tech hubs – Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal – the shortfall in senior-level tech workers has even prompted international hiring symposiums such as the one last year in Calgary, hosted by Calgary Economic Development and international ICT recruitment firm VanHack. In October, VanHack vetted 36 intermediate and senior tech job seekers from five continents to help local Calgary companies hire the talent they desperately need to grow. The skilled trades tell a similar story. Fewer youth are learning the skills needed to replace an aging generation of soon-to-retire tradespeople. Critical shortages in skilled workers are on the horizon.2 In Alberta, during the economic downturn, trades groups reported continued healthy demand for skilled workers, but during the province’s oil and gas boom years, worker shortages were so acute that projects also imported tradespeople from abroad. This practice is expensive and risky, and almost always “the option of last resort,” whether in trades or tech.
By now, educators have surely heard a well-honed message from Canada’s trades groups. “If we want to have a well-functioning society, we need people with diverse interests and diverse skills,” says Shaun Thorson, Chief Executive Officer of Skills/Compétences Canada. Students should be led to consider all occupations and not just those that shepherd them through a university education, he says.
This message, however, doesn’t seem to be translating into more tradespeople. Despite steady, well-compensated work in trades, there remains a deeply entrenched perception that trades are a lesser career path to one that requires a university education – even as increasing numbers of university graduates struggle to find employment.
“It’s worth repeating that not everyone wants an office job in front of a computer,” Thorson says. “And not everyone wants to be out on a worksite, working with tools and materials. The main thing is to tell students to do their research and not get trapped in the six to ten occupations that you mostly hear about.”
Digitization of trades
Some of the obvious examples of digitized trades are the diagnostic tools that automotive and heavy-equipment technicians use today. GPS-guided excavation is now run-of-the-mill technology in road construction and natural resource extraction projects. Schematic drawings are now mostly read on tablets rather than from rolls of paper blueprints.
Pretty much all trades contractors rely on scheduling, invoicing and other software programs to expedite their paperwork. The ubiquitous smartphone and the many communication platforms such as Teams and other video/chat/file-sharing apps allow for greater collaboration and problem solving among tradespeople, designers and engineers. And new digital applications are being introduced each year.
Janis Lawrence-Harper, director of research and development with Careers: The Next Generation, an Alberta trade group launched in 1997 to support the growth of the oilsands industry by promoting skilled trades, adds some of the latest developments along this digital journey. “In the oilsands, the heavy haulers have a tremendous number of sensors that collect data about everything from how hard the equipment is hitting bumps, to how inflated the tires are and where the bumps are located so the road can actually be fixed,” she says. That data is tracked and processed by the mechanic, whose job it is to optimize the efficient running of these machines. (What Lawrence-Harper doesn’t mention is that autonomous vehicles are also becoming the norm in some mining operations in Alberta and around the world.)
Agricultural equipment technicians also rely on data to do their job. Advanced agricultural equipment today can seed a field within an inch of the previous year’s seeding plan. To maximize crop growth, drones help run and monitor fertilization programs.
“As technology continues to play a bigger role in many skilled trades, we are going to see changes in the required skillsets,” says Lawrence-Harper. “That might mean those occupations change, or in some cases, it might create new specialized positions that could fall into the categories of skilled trades and ICT. It will be up to the Alberta government to decide where those occupations belong.”.
ICT as a trade
The Working Centre, an Ontario group established in 1982 as a response to unemployment and poverty in downtown Kitchener, now lists several ICT roles as skilled trades under the “Services” banner. These occupations include Contact Centre Customer Service Agent, Technical Support Agent, Hardware Technician, and Network Technician.
The grey area between tech and trades has prompted Careers: The Next Generation to launch an Information and Communication Technology Internship Program to help meet the growing demand for tech workers in the next decade. The program offers six-week hands-on-learning internships to high school students interested in expanding their understanding of ICT opportunities in the workplace and to help define their potential career paths.
“We’re piloting it this year – though it’s a bit of a stretch right now with the COVID 19 pandemic,” Lawrence-Harper says. “We see a huge synergy between skilled trades and ICT. These two directions build on each other and this program bridges that gap between tech and trades.”
Careers: The Next Generation works with companies and organizations whose primary role isn’t ICT, but which have an ICT dimension. These have been in transportation, construction, marketing, the not-for-profit sector or others. At the other end, Careers works with high school staff to match Grade 11 and 12 students who have specific ICT skills and interests with target company needs. “Pacific Western, for example, has a lot of heavy-equipment technicians, so we talk to them about what role ICT plays in their company, what the crossover is in their heavy-equipment garage and how they could benefit from hiring a student intern,” Lawrence-Harper says. The company or organization foots the bill for the six-week internship, and benefits from the placement to the extent of the type and scope of work identified for the intern. Part of this value proposition is a line of sight to future ICT hiring, development of mentoring capabilities, strengthening of its ICT focus and connection to community.
To date, about 30 students have taken part in this internship, but the program is expected to expand into something bigger. Lawrence-Harper says that the skilled trades’ training model, which combines on-the-job mentoring and post-secondary education, could apply to learning certain ICT roles.
The blurring of lines between information and communications technology (ICT) and skilled trades has created a confusing occupational grey area.
Limitations and pathways
Despite the overlap of skilled trades and tech, Skills Canada’s Thorson is careful not to oversell the razzle and dazzle of tech to prospective apprentices. “The digitization of trades is exciting and interesting and may initially attract more students to learn about what’s involved in these occupations, but I don’t think digital tech will necessarily keep them in a skilled trade occupation [if they don’t enjoy the trade itself],” he says.
ICTC’s manager of data analysis and research, Rob Davidson, puts a finer point on this. “Trades are typically tactile occupations. So they are almost the opposite of digital jobs, which are mostly abstract,” he says. Many tech roles, in fact, involve high levels of abstract thinking and knowledge of programming languages. This is true of the top five in-demand digital occupations identified by ICTC’s Canada’s Growth Currency: Digital Talent Outlook 2023 (software developer, data scientist, data analyst, UX/UI designer, and full stack developer).
Thorson, however, urges people to move beyond the idea that students are either abstract learners or experiential learners. Students fall somewhere along a continuum between these poles. This perspective opens the door to “helping students find the right comfort level with abstract concepts that are married to tactile occupations that manipulate objects.”
Moreover, Davidson notes that the growing importance of digital technology challenges other sterotypes. The image of the socially inept techie in a dim backroom full of computer screens is giving way to tech workers who can fluently explain digital functionalities and present the business case for a new technology platform to C-suite executives.
A parallel trend in the skilled trades is driven by the collaborative nature of digital technology, which is allowing tradespeople to share their expertise. Construction outcomes, for example, can be improved when trades collaboration is sought earlier in the planning and design process rather than later in the execution stage, as has traditionally been the case. Shared digital platforms are facilitating this type of stakeholder consultation.
Exposing students to these tech and occupational trends is key. Educators can play an important role in helping students find meaningful careers by sharing their understanding of digital technology developments and their impacts on in-demand occupations. This awareness could extend to keeping abreast of new tech curricula developments in Canada’s post-secondary institutions, and various initiatives such as the Careers ICT pilot, or ICTC’s nationwide CyberTitan program, which provides middle and secondary school students with a foundation in digital skills by participating in a competition to fend off simulated cyber attacks. Career options have never been as diverse as they are today.
First published in Education Canada, June 2020
- ICTC is in the process of revising this pre-COVID-19 forecast. Moreover, ICTC’s previous forecast to 2021 projected a significantly lower demand of 216,000 tech jobs, which was largely due to a change in methodology; more ICT-related National Occupational Classification codes were included in the 2023 forecast.
- Again, how this will be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic was unknown at the time of writing.