When Labour Shortage Intersects With #METOO – Crisis or Opportunity?
Recently, I was on a plane heading back to Vancouver after being in Northern B.C. – the land of Oil & Gas and Site C – and it was hard not to overhear the conversation of the young man in front of me to the passenger beside him.
During his conversation, he touched on a subject many HR professionals encounter all the time: how the demographic gap impacts potential labour shortages in industry – in particular, the trades.
The man described the concerns in terms of “crisis”.
A few seats over, I quietly disagreed.
I say this moment of shortage is an opportunity. I am a labour lawyer and have been for years. My work is almost exclusively focused on workplace investigations. My work gives me a unique perspective on workplaces and what happens in them. I have visited worksites in every corner of this province, and I learn a lot in the interloper role I get paid to play.
So why do I believe a shortage of labour equals opportunity?
I say this because of the #metoo movement and a much-needed change in the journey that takes us through high school on to post-secondary and into the workplace that relates to gender and the trades.
Advice From My Father
A bit of history may help place my perspective in context. I am a daughter raised by a feminist father before such a thing was defined. My dad told me I should never take a spare in high school and be open to learning trades such as automotive, carpentry and print shop when those opportunities were available.
He’s always told me, “Why not?” and, “Why wouldn’t you?”.
And I’ve never been able to come up with a reason to disagree with him.
His guidance helped me explore things I never would have without him. Those moments exploring the trades in my adolescence created opportunities to learn in ways previously I had not explored. At its simplest, his, “Why wouldn’t you?” opened my mind.
I am a daughter raised by an automotive teacher who said I could do it all and should try it all. How lucky was I?
Still Stuck In The Stone Age
Juxtapose my 16 year-old self being guided by my father’s progressive ways to the experiences I have had in the last six months working on files involving the trades in B.C.
All had a common thread. All related to complaints of inappropriate conduct in the trades, in particular, the treatment of women – whether it be as students, apprentices, or employees working in industrial environments.
I can’t give details, but I’m speaking truth when I say the behaviour of some people at work would shock you. Most people would not believe the things we learn happen at work can happen in 2019 – but they do and on a daily basis.
What makes the last six months unique for me is not the behaviours per se, but the common response to my questions about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
Most don’t even deny it happening and openly admit to the incidents, using language like, “But, we are the trades” as reason to justify the behaviour.
“But, we are the trades” – it’s a statement of excuse. From a different perspective, it is an opportunity to make significant positive change.
An Opportunity For Reform and Inclusion
There are legitimate concerns about the scarcity of qualified, highly-skilled workers in a number of critical trades, which are needed to ensure projects are completed on time and on budget.
From my vantage point, there is a huge opportunity for women to fill that labour shortage in these vital areas. In order to capitalize on the opportunity, we need to make significant changes within the trades to make this line of work appealing to women.
There are already a number of benefits, including wage rates, the flexibility to make your own schedule if you own your own business and occupations that are currently in high demand, that flow from working in the trades. These types of benefits should appeal to women.
From a culture perspective, being a woman and working within the trades is a less appealing proposition.
To create real change, it will take a concerted effort of many, starting at the high school level and following all the way through to jobsites around the province.
Creating an Environment to Appeal to Women
There are three areas I have identified that need change to create a culture of inclusion in this sector. In theory, these changes should lead to a positive increase in the number of women working within the trades:
- Reform at the high school level: Change the way that girls and boys are introduced to various roles – from caregivers to technical trades people. While I’d love those conversations to start in Kindergarten, at the very least we need to think about the high school experience as it relates to gender and stereotypes about certain occupations. Some questions we need to start asking are, how many female shop teachers are there in B.C.? How many girls in high school choose electives that focus on trades? Are schools and parents communicating an archaic perspective that practical education is “less than” academics, and not a great option for girls. We have some serious work to do in education to change these perspectives that either consciously or subconsciously discourage educational journeys based on traditional gender roles. I wish every child could have my father’s perspective on how valuable this education is. “Why wouldn’t you?” is a question worth promoting for all students.
- Reform at the post-secondary level: I’ve had too many post-secondary files to not see the challenges and opportunities that exist at this level for a woman who has chosen a learning journey in the trades. I have yet to see a post-secondary institution include workplace behaviour as a meaningful part of their curriculum. Safety, yes, absolutely, that topic is up front for all students. Sexual harassment and/or bullying? Codes of Conduct? If there is any time spent on these important issues, they are limited and not meaningful. Questions post-secondary institutions should explore include, what happens when women go to college and study trades? What does it feel like to be the only woman in a class of men? What does it feel like to have nothing but male instructors as options and limited role models or mentors to guide a young women’s journey? I have heard men tell me that they have deliberately singled out women in the classroom – using sexual humour or degrading comments – in order to prepare them to work in the trades. The right way to prepare all students today is to teach them the baselines for behaviours that are inclusive for all – and do so front and centre at the beginning of their education, just as we do with safety.
- Reform on the jobsite: We need to change, “We are the trades” from an excuse to an epithet of pride for any employee who works in the sector. No more “but . . . “ and no more justifications for a different expectation for behaviour. Organizations should be asking, what happens when women get to the worksite? What can they expect in terms of behaviours from their colleagues, supervisors, managers and union representatives? Do they know where they can go for help, and do they trust they will get it? Is the job site an inclusive and respectful place? When we think or say “we are the trades” let’s change what it means to a mantra of inclusion and respect.
The current shortage in skilled trades is not a crisis. Nor is #metoo something to be seen as a problem. These moments come together as an opportunity that has not presented itself before.
Crisis is the wrong lens. Opportunity is the right one.
Lisa Southern is the Founder of Southern & Associates, a legal firm located in North Vancouver that specializes in employment and labour law, especially in the area of workplace investigations. Lisa strongly believes that engaging a reliable and fair Investigator results in a sustainable and acceptable outcome, demonstrates the necessary due diligence, and results in less litigation post-investigation. Lisa’s specialization in workplace investigations is built on her transition through key legal roles that continue to provide her with a unique background and perspective. In 2003, Lisa was appointed to the BC Labour Relations Board, first as vice chair, and then as registrar and vice chair until 2009 when she returned to private practice and started to focus on the important work of investigations and supporting exceptional workplace culture. In addition to her investigation work, Lisa is frequently appointed as a mediator and also arbitrates labour disputes.
Lisa will be speaking at the HR Conference + Tradeshow in Vancouver, B.C. on April 3rd. To register for the conference and see the whole lineup CLICK HERE.