The manager of a major roofing company in Saint John says he’s struggling to find young people interested in starting a career in the trade.
Peter Wilson, general manager of Dowd Roofing Inc. says most young workers don’t want to complete their blocks, which would allow them to advance both professionally and financially in the roofing industry.
“Dowd Roofing has been around for 80 years and it’s never been this hard to have people come to work. There used to be people around looking for work, they would show up and knock on the door,” says Wilson. “Over the last four or five years, it’s been getting harder and harder to get labour to come and do work.”
Roofing is a manual and physical job, but Wilson says there’s not a lot of prior skill required to get started in the profession.
“There’s not a lot of skill required for someone to come in and say, ‘I want to work hard and I want a job,’” he says.
The starting rate for a unionized roofing company in New Brunswick with no prior schooling or experience is about $16.75 an hour, Wilson says. If you’re a good fit for the job and you work around 1,200 hours, you can then apply for the apprenticeship program, run by the province, to get your first block (there’s three to complete in total). Wilson says once you successfully complete your first block and 1,800 hours worked, you get an automatic pay bump from $16.75 to almost $22 an hour.
As you continue to work and successfully pass your blocks each year, you continue to get pay increases.
“After you get your block one, you work again for another so many hours, which works out to be about a year’s worth of hours. Then you go to block two and you do the same thing again and you get another increase,” says Wilson. “You work in between block two and block three and you when you come out of block three, you get around $28 an hour.”
Roofing is generally a seasonal industry. Employees typically work from April to mid-December. Foremen and more skilled workers may work after that time when weather and projects allow. Newer workers typically go on Employment Insurance during those four months. But it’s also during the time when the apprenticeship program takes place. With financial assistance from the province available for those taking the program, Wilson says it’s an opportune time for new workers to advance their careers.
“Though it may be harsh to be on unemployment for a lot of people, it’s a short-term pain for a long-term gain,” says Wilson.
“When talking about some construction work some people might not realize that even though it’s sometimes seasonal it is possible to work close to the hours of a non-seasonal type job. Traditionally people look at 2080 hours a year as the norm which would be equal to 40 hours a week x 52 weeks. In many construction and seasonal jobs, these same amount of hours are still possible but you have to be willing to work the weeks that weather is good and the days are longer, this would be the case in July/August as opposed to January/February for example.”
It’s not just Dowd Roofing that’s experiencing a lack of interest of people wanting to pursue roofing as a career. Local 473, the union that represents both roofers and sheet metal workers in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, also feels the pinch.
“On the sheet metal side of it, I have an active unemployed list. The guys get laid off, they call and we put their name on the list,” says David Mowbray, business manager and financial secretary and treasurer for the union. “Roofers, when they go to work for Peter [Wilson], for example, they’ll stay with Peter until there’s a problem and they send them home or they decide there’s a better company out there and they go to work for another company.
My roofing population is pretty much 100 percent employed right now. I have 160 roofers.”
Why the lack of interest?
Why don’t young people want to be roofers? There are a couple theories. Mowbray says part of it is lack of education on what the industry is like today.
“Years ago, it was a lot of labour intensive work. Now the roof applications have changed,” says Mowbray. “They’re not all tar and gravel … the guys are making a good wage. It’s just a matter of getting them interested and then the province getting them educated.”
Wilson agrees that lack of education is an issue. He says young people aren’t being shown a clear picture of what a career in the trades is like and what it can offer.
“I get guys 25 to 30-years old that are knocking on the door that had no idea that this opportunity was here. So the part of the problem then is, they don’t know when they’re going through the high school that there’s a trade available to them,” he says.
“I think a lot of it is, a lot of kids go through school not knowing what they want to do when they get out of school. They’re not exposed to enough different things while they’re in school to realize what’s out there.”
The fact that maybe young people just don’t want to be roofers could also be a part of it.
U.S. firm C+R Research has done studies that show teens have very little interest in working in the country’s biggest sectors that will be growing in the future. Instead, many teens want to work in industries like arts and media that represent only about 2 percent of American occupations.
This is something Wilson thinks is happening in Canada and New Brunswick as well.
“People are wanting to get into jobs that don’t exist or there isn’t a demand for. And the jobs that do exist, that there is a demand for, people aren’t wanting to get in there. It’s a change in society, it’s a change in desire, it’s a change in a lifestyle, but the fact of the matter is, you still need to have people in trades,” he says.
“There’s a lot of trades in Saint John and there’s a lot of industry in Saint John. It’s more blue collar than it is white collar, but they probably graduate more white-collar people every year than they do blue-collar.”
What does this mean?
No matter what the reasons are, it’s bad news for New Brunswick. Numbers are showing that New Brunswick is going to be short of tradespeople in the residential/non-residential construction and maintenance sector. According to BuildForce, by 2026 the province will see around 7,600 retirements, but only around 5,200 new people entering the workforce.
For individual businesses like Dowd Roofing, this is concerning. Wilson says as more of his senior foremen and skilled workers retire, he needs new people to replace them. If there is nobody willing to go to school to replace them, that means less young people will be able to get their foot through the door as general workers, since there won’t be as many senior workers to oversee them.
“I can hire a dozen helpers tomorrow, but I’ve got to have some leaders to let those dozen people work. The problem is not only with just young people, it’s with skilled people as well,” says Wilson. “Whether it be plumbing or electrical, every trade needs to have a crew when they go out to work. In electrical for example, if there’s a bunch of young people coming out of the school system and they take that trade and there are not enough journeymen to put them with, they don’t have a job.”
Mowbray also sees the roofing industry struggling if they don’t get enough young people wanting to work through the ranks.
“There’s a lot of people out there that can and will do roofing, but they don’t want to be a foreman, they just want to go draw their paycheque and do their job and go home,’ he says.
“…Other than education, I don’t know. The kids aren’t getting it.”