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Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets heavy duty mechanical trade students before an announcement about the apprentice loan program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology Annacis Island Campus in Delta, B.C., on Thursday January 8, 2015.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Federal government programs to fill the shortage of skilled workers in Canada won't have much impact unless employers get on board and start training more young people, the Prime Minister warns.

Stephen Harper appeared at a British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) campus on Thursday to tell trades students that the Canada Apprentice Loan is now "open for business," providing apprentices in designated "red seal" trades with access to interest-free loans similar to the ones already available to college and university students. Red-seal trades include bakers, electricians and machinists, among others.

It was the latest in a host of measures offered by the federal government, ahead of an election this year, aimed at getting more young people working in the trades. The Conference Board of Canada predicts the country will need one million additional skilled workers by 2020.

But the Prime Minister also had a message for employers in the trades: start hiring more apprentices.

"While our government is making investments in apprenticeships today to build the skilled work force for tomorrow, it is ultimately up to businesses to bring on board a greater number of apprentices," he said.

To pursue apprenticeships, students must first be hired by a company that agrees to support and mentor them through the process, as well as allow them to leave periodically to attend trade school.

Sarah Watts-Rynard, the executive director at the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, said it often takes up to six months for potential apprentices to find a job, during which time many of them will change their mind and find another career path that is easier to access.

"We absolutely need employers to make that commitment and say they want to be part of creating the work force that they need," she said. "We've been encouraging youth for years to go into the skilled trades. Now we've engaged them and gotten them interested and what do they need now? They need jobs."

In B.C., only 17 per cent of eligible employers actually employ and indenture apprentices, according to Steve Perry, an associate dean at BCIT.

He said, though, that the number is starting to go up, with more employers coming forward.

"It's quite encouraging to see some very large employers coming in directly to meet with our students when they are here," he said.

Guy Avidan-Shavit employs heavy-duty mechanics at his machine shops in Delta and Prince George and points out the difficulty in maintaining the bottom line while trying to provide an apprentice with the necessary training and leadership.

He suggested tax breaks for employing apprentices to help to make up for some of the lost income.

Still, he says he is continually taking on apprentices because he knows many skilled mechanics across the province will be retiring in the coming years.

"It really is going to be a disaster," he says. "I've seen the level of some of the mechanics who will take their place, and it's ridiculous. I would like the knowledge of my mechanics to be passed along and to grow."