In the spring of 2012, discouraged by his lack of prospects in Ontario, Michael Reid uprooted himself from Sarnia and hit the road for Saskatchewan, where farm equipment manufacturer Morris Industries Ltd. snapped up the young welder after seeing a demonstration of his skills.
"If it hadn't worked out, we would have just kept going. There's lots of work [in Western Canada]," says Mr. Reid, 28, whose wife found the Morris Industries opportunity on the Saskatchewan government's online job site, SaskJobs.ca. (The site currently lists more than 330 postings for welders in that province alone, with various national job boards advertising thousands more.)
"It's a challenge in Saskatchewan on the skilled labour side," said Don Henry, chief operating officer of Morris Industries, based in Yorkton, Sask. "I think our biggest shortfall right now [at Morris] is welding."
Because welders are needed in practically every industrial sector, the war for talent is intense. But, as Mr. Reid found, these skilled tradespeople have to go where the work is in order to take advantage of the opportunities. The best prospects, he said, are in the West, especially for younger workers who want to continue to train on the job and expand their knowledge of the trade.
Many employers will only look at candidates who already have their journeyman's ticket – but not enough are willing to take on and train apprentices so they can gain the hours and experience needed to obtain that certification and secure a sustainable career, educators say.
Welders are employed in a variety of industries, including vessel or structural steel assembly, pipeline construction, commercial construction, industrial construction, steel fabrication and heavy equipment repair, notes the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, which operates North America's largest welding program.
The starting average pay for a journeyman welder in Alberta, for example, is $64,688 a year and the industry average for an experienced welder is $80,903.
"If you are prepared to put in the hours and work in selected locations that are extremely busy, it is easy enough to make over $100,000 or $200,000, depending on what you are doing or where you are working. It can be very lucrative for sure," said Chris Manning, chairman of the welding program at NAIT in Edmonton.
Here is a look at the demand and the opportunities:
Morris Industries, which manufactures heavy farm equipment for export around the world, has attended trade missions in Toronto and Ireland in the search for skilled tradespeople, and recently held its own recruiting events in Yorkton, Sask., and Minnedosa, Man., north of Brandon, where it has manufacturing operations. "Saskatchewan unemployment is very low right now, and it is a challenge to find employees who aren't working somewhere else," Mr. Henry said.
Not all roles at Morris require a journeyman's expertise – the company is also hiring spray painters and assemblers, and trains candidates "with the desire to work" to its specifications, Mr. Henry said. But for those hard-to-fill skilled trades positions, Morris recognizes that the offer of more formal apprenticeship opportunities will give it a definite recruiting edge.
Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, the country's largest trade and industry association, reported recently that nearly 50 per cent of Canadian manufacturers are experiencing labour shortages, primarily in the skilled trades.
The route to becoming a skilled tradesperson varies from province to province, but any journeyperson with provincially recognized credentials can write the Red Seal examination, a nationally recognized certification that qualifies them to work in a skilled trade anywhere in Canada.
Many provinces offer pre-apprenticeship training through private and community colleges, while others, like Alberta, will not accept students into their apprenticeship programs until they have first found an employer willing to sponsor the on-the-job component of their training under the supervision of a qualified journeyperson (a process that typically takes three years as the apprentice alternates between formal schooling and workplace experience.)
"The first part of the apprenticeship process in Alberta is that you have to find someone who is willing to indenture you into the trade, so you need to find an employer that will essentially sponsor you," NAIT's Mr. Manning said. In Alberta, it is tougher to find apprenticeship positions in urban areas, and easier in more remote areas.
"Some companies are fantastic – they sign on apprentices on a continual basis and they do their own training with them. But some aren't, and they don't do enough, and when there is a shortage of skilled labour, some of these companies can only blame themselves because they haven't done what they need to do to support the system and have these people in place," said Mr. Manning, whose program has the capacity to train 2,100 welding apprentices a year.
It is a trade that prospective candidates can start training for straight out of high school, with the requirements set out on provincial government websites. The formal educational training typically grounds students in basic metallurgy, math, blueprint reading, and a range of welding procedures.
It is a field suited to women as well as men, said Mr. Manning, who would like to see the representation of female students in his program increase from the current 7 per cent to 10 per cent. "I think there may be some misconception that you have to be a big strong person to be a welder and the reality is that most companies have equipment to do all that heavy lifting."
Mr. Reid went to Can-Weld, a private college in Sarnia, Ont., and earned his Canadian Welding Bureau ticket – but had trouble breaking into the field and landing a job with the training he needed to advance his skills.
Morris Industries appealed to him because of the training opportunities and the room for advancement. When the welding work slows down, Mr. Reid has the chance to learn other aspects of the manufacturing operation, such as machining and assembly.
Mr. Reid said he would feel stifled in an office job, and his pride in his work is evident. "This type of work is far more rewarding. I can see my equipment going out the door and, especially here, everybody knows Morris. You are standing in line at Tim Hortons, and you have a Morris hat on, someone brings it up in conversation, and away you go."