Trades stigma fading in minority communities

Changing career path views could help reduce B.C.’s skills shortage

As cultural attitudes toward careers change, Asian Canadians could help meet B.C.’s projected shortage of skilled workers | Matthew Xan/Shutterstock

International students and youth from B.C.’s minority communities may be increasingly warming up to working in the trades, defying traditional perceptions of the sector and potentially providing a much-needed boost to the province’s growing labour shortage.

Trades and vocational training institutions around the Lower Mainland are reporting a growing number of international students looking at fields such as heavy mechanical, automotive and automation-related sectors, especially when they compare the labour situation in their home countries (where trades are often not certified and paid as menial labour) with the realities of the Canadian situation.

“It is true that international students continue to favour business degrees or other university degree programs, but we are starting to see the number applying to trades programs increase slowly,” said John English, dean of the faculty of applied and technical studies at the University of the Fraser Valley. “Once they learn the culture, the system and the opportunity and the income potential here, they are usually quickly all over it.”

Officials say that for immigrant communities whose youth are already well-acclimated Canadian citizens, the idea of trade certification as a viable alternative to a doctoral or master’s degree has long taken root. Brett Griffiths, dean of the school of trades, technology and design at Vancouver Community College, said the days of a trades-program class being predominantly of one ethnicity are long gone.

“Generally, the students that we see in the trades are pretty much reflective of the demographics of Vancouver and our school,” Griffiths said. “Our students do come from 40 different countries speaking 30 different languages, and that’s certainly reflective of our trades program.”

This new interest in trades among new Canadians and international students comes as a Conference Board of Canada report last year put the potential shortage of local skilled workers to be potentially at 514,000 within the next 10 years. The same report showed 26% of B.C.’s employers surveyed said they are in need of workers with post-secondary-education trades credentials.

But Queenie Choo, CEO of immigrant settlement services agency SUCCESS, said the group’s Youth Business Innovative Idea Startups program has attracted a steady number of people under 30, many of them from minority communities, interested in starting their own businesses in trades after graduating from vocational programs.

Choo added that the agency’s foreign credential recognition program has been successful in getting a number of highly skilled immigrants placed in areas where labour needs exist. The combined numbers from new Canadians and those in minority communities may help bridge the projected labour gap, she said.

“I think they can absolutely be part of the solution,” Choo said. “There are about 30,000 newcomers to B.C. every year, and this is a significant number. They have different talents, and it’d be a shame if we don’t include those people who are bringing their knowledge to B.C. and really channel them to the right opportunities.”

Traditionally, there is a stigma, especially in East Asian cultures where Confucianism is strong, against trades and other blue-collar positions in favour of occupations in law, medicine and finance. But as the number of university and college graduates in degree programs increases, the competition for jobs in those professions has increasingly pushed more people to look into trades.

A potential indicator of the ongoing change may be what’s happening in these international markets themselves, from which new immigrants and cultural communities tend to inherit the sense of an occupation’s level of prestige. Ajay Patel, vice-president of external development at Langara College, said he and other educational officials who frequent Asia have noticed the trend.

“You do still see some bias favouring traditional degree programs, but that is changing,” Patel said, noting the shift is most palpable in China and India. “It will still take time, but five to 10 years ago, you couldn’t even see a hint of a possible shift, and now it’s starting to be noticeable.”

University of British Columbia scholar Henry Yu, a leading expert on Asian-Canadian history and immigration, said the views in minority communities or new immigrant families towards favouring certain types of jobs tend to soften as people integrate into their new surroundings.

He added that while cultural norms may play a role in certain Asian communities favouring white-collar professional jobs, the key driver is economics, which means that as B.C.’s labour demands change, so will the perception of immigrant families. So as demand for skilled labour in the B.C. market increases, the corresponding rise in compensation will draw a higher proportion of immigrants and minorities to those fields.