Human factors

by Eric Berard

Fun fact: A factor is anyone or anything involved in the process of production. That’s why places where things are made are called “factories.” In the midst of a generalized labor shortage, the trucking equipment manufacturing sector is more than ever looking for a helping hand, whether it comes from Canada or abroad. The future of the truck equipment industry may very well rely on these human factors. No equipment, no trucking.

Just like fleets, trucking equipment manufacturers are struggling to hire among non-traditional worker pools. Women, the young, and immigrants are targeted to replace an aging workforce that’s contemplating retirement.

Of all trades, welders are the most sought-after.

“If you need to make something and you need to make it out of steel, then you need welders,” sums up Todd Saunders, human resources vice-president for BWS Manufacturing in Centreville, N.B. The specialty trailer company says it has lost business over the last months and years because of a labor shortage.

When asked how many welders he would hire the next day if he could, Saunders says: “I would hire 10 now and then two per month forever,” to illustrate that the company doesn’t only have to fulfill a higher-than-average demand, but also to replace aging workers. Saunders says he can think of five employees who are ready to retire.

The situation echoes the one seen at Tremcar, a tank trailer manufacturer based in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.

“Within five years, half of our welder employees will have retired,” says marketing and communications specialist Melanie Dufresne.

This sounds familiar to Suzy Leveille, general manager of the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association (CTEA).

“The reports we have from our membership state that the equipment production backlog is probably due 100% to a lack of manpower,” she says. “Right now, I think that’s probably the most common thing we hear about.”

Tremcar, too, says it lost millions in contracts because of a lack of welders.

“We put billboards along highways to advertise we were hiring, we went to the media, we even tried door-to-door polybagged flyers,” Dufresne says, to highlight all the efforts the company went through to attract a local workforce before it turned to foreign workers from Tunisia.

That doesn’t mean that Tremcar gave up on Canadian welders. In fact, it’s actually training some in the “plant/training center” it established in partnership with a local school board. People are paid to learn during their internship and about 20 a year become official Tremcar welders. Some are current employees who want to climb the career ladder.

BWS followed a similar path when it set up a co-op program with its local school board. “There are students that come to BWS every semester to perform a work term or co-op program that gives them a chance to become familiar with the industry and the opportunities that are in the industry. We have a lot of employees today that came from that co-op program,” Saunders says.

“By the time they’re done with that welding program at the school and through BWS, they become CWB (Canadian Welding Bureau)-certified, so they have the capability to graduate with a certification that every local welding company in the area requires,” Saunders adds.

Foreign workers and domestic students

Commendable as they are, such local efforts have proven insufficient to answer demand and Tremcar has decided to invest over half a million dollars in a facility in Tunisia where workers are trained to Canadian tank trailer manufacturing standards until they get their visa and work permit to come to work in one of Tremcar’s Canadian plants.

Tremcar picked Tunisia after it was invited to be part of an international mission organized there by a regional economic development office. Tunisia’s French colony heritage also mitigated the language barrier. Communication is crucial in a precision trade where blueprints are complex and every detail matters.

The soon-to-be Tremcar welders are selected and trained while the immigration process takes place, and they’re almost ready to roll when they arrive in Canada. Almost, because beyond the metal work, newcomers will need to get familiar with the Canadian lifestyle upon their arrival. Opening bank accounts, finding housing, a school for the kids, and a job for the spouse and grown-up children are among challenges that the hiring company will help them through.

But the efforts pay off: a first group of 28 Tunisian welders is expected to arrive in Canada in March. But it also costs money for plane tickets and trainers’ wages, and it takes effort to prepare the existing workforce for the arrival of new, foreign, colleagues. That’s why Tremcar is looking for partners that are also considering hiring foreign workers to share the related costs and resources. In addition to manufacturing companies, such partners could be fleets looking for mechanics, as Tremcar also employs them in its service centers across Canada.

In Centreville, Saunders says BWS is also contemplating the possibility of hiring foreign workers as welders, but hasn’t picked a location yet.

“It’s premature to select a particular country. We’ve talked about it, but I’m not ruling anything out,” he says.

Saunders took part in a virtual career fair shortly prior to when we talked to him and he was amazed by the number of applicants from Russia and Ukraine, among other countries.

“Every participant that came on was a foreign applicant. I did not speak to anybody from Canada,” he says. “What does that tell you when you go to a virtual career fair and nobody local shows up?”

Rethinking career options

Women are highly under-represented among welders, according to BWS’s vice-president.

“In the industry today, 90% of the people welding are male. If we could change that so there’s more of a balance, right away you’re going from 90% male to 50% or 60% male and 40% female, and all of the sudden you’ve opened up a market to have more people, if I can say it that way,” Saunders says.

He thinks girls’ education is no help to that situation.

“We program that right into our children from the time they’re young,” he says about gender-specific jobs.

In fact, boys, too, tend to overlook manufacturing jobs. CTEA’s Leveille recently attended her son’s high school graduation. And out of the 177 students, “only one was going to professional school,” she says.

Clearly, manufacturing jobs haven’t been highly valued over the years. Such a value can come in the form of recognition and BWS Manufacturing acknowledges it. The local school runs a welding team just like it would a sports team.

“Last year, we had a young gentleman in Grade 12 who went to a welding competition and came first in New Brunswick. Then he went to Alberta to represent New Brunswick and won,” Saunders says, qualifying this as “a major accomplishment.”

Dufresne can recall a situation where such recognition was expected and easy to achieve. She was at her company’s training centrer in Tunisia and a young man insisted for her to take a photograph of his work. “He was so proud of his weld,” she says. A snapshot later, recognition was granted.

Technology’s omnipresence may also have brought a culture of “immediate gratification” among the young, according to Saunders.

“They get on their cellphone and say ‘I want stuff,’ they don’t want to wait for anything. We’re not utilizing the tools those kids have to make them aware of the opportunities.

Opportunities for females, opportunities for skilled labor, opportunities to advance,” he says, suggesting that the industry needs to reach the young where they are, including on social media.

Even though the association doesn’t officially have a program that addresses the labor shortage at the moment, the CTEA is likely to take a closer look at it, according to Leveille.

“I think this is something we’ll have to look into in the near future,” she says. In addition to Tunisia, Russia, and Ukraine, Leveille says she also heard members refer to the Philippines, Peru, and Mexico as promising countries to find manufacturing employees.

At the end of the day, employers need to understand that foreign workers are simply people who want to enjoy what they do.

“We want the experience to be positive and rewarding for both parties,” Dufresne says. “It’s a win-win situation when the workers are happy and the hiring companies are as well.”

Those are all human factors.

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  • WHY don’t they pay Canadians the way they will the immigrants? Pay their rent, help their older children, get the spouse a job. And what about the things they aren’t mentioning? Buy them clothes, get them bank accounts with no fees and good interest rates?
    And instead of going to foreign countries, go to Welfare! There are a lot of people abusing the system – fix it!

  • Our apprenticeship model has not changed in many centuries. We have very low apprenticeship enrollment and completion rates. Only about 19% of employers participate in apprenticeship training. An employer hires an apprentice with the best intention of training them to the best of their abilities. However, apprentices development is often limited to the available opportunities to learn new skills at a single employer. The CWB is trying to address this issue through a 5 year pilot research program to see if a rotation of apprentices with at least 3 participating employers to see if this innovative model could lead to better success.