By James Jackson
For the Post
The skilled manufacturing industry needs to take a page from the local high-tech sector and open a business incubator to help train and retain talent in the region.
That’s according to the president of the Conestoga Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, who spoke to a group of manufacturing industry experts and regional representatives last week.
“Look at what Communitech is doing, where is the equivalent for manufacturing?” asked John Tibbits last week at the release of a new report by the Workforce Planning Board of Waterloo Wellington Dufferin.
The report indicates manufacturing in Waterloo Region is far from death’s door, shining light on the perceived misconception by using the most recent statistics available.
Contrary to what many might think, the sector has rebounded since the 2008-2009 recession, with employment numbers approaching the 61,600 it was a decade ago, the report suggests.
In 2012, manufacturing employment peaked at 61,700 in August, an increase from 50,200 in January, then fell to 59,200 in September.
Yet the industry needs talented people to fill the new and emerging roles in the industry, and students coming out of elementary schools and high schools today are woefully uninformed about the sector, Tibbits said.
Most teachers — though well-meaning — typically hold bachelor degrees from universities, leading to an inherent bias away from colleges, Tibbits said.
A revision of the education system and of the apprenticeship program in the province is critical, he said.
“Communitech started 15 years ago when the tech sector was fledgling. We need an organization that focuses on trades, and it starts in elementary and high schools.
“Why not be an advanced manufacturing centre for Ontario?”
The report suggests if more people make the switch into the trades, jobs will be waiting for them, as highlighted by the peak in employment earlier this year.
Statistical analysis company Community Benchmarks worked on the study and used information from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Business Patterns and Labour Force Survey.
While compiling the report, the company heard anecdotally that the industry is bouncing back, but local employers are having a hard time finding skilled workers.
There are more people working in manufacturing here than in other parts of the province.
The study found 18.4 per cent of the Waterloo Region workforce was in manufacturing in 2011, compared to an average of 11.8 per cent in Ontario.
A total of 1,418 manufacturing companies call the region home, and employed 50,800 in 2011.
“I like what those numbers show me,” said Paul Knafelc of Community Benchmarks, noting 76 per cent of businesses have fewer than 20 employees and 75 per cent have revenues of $2 million or less.
“Small, medium and large companies — you need that balance.”
Yet more needs to be done to help connect employers with those seeking work, added Knafelc, a shortage some employers have called “desperate” and “critical.”
The aim of the report was to start the discussion within the business and manufacturing community and with educational institutions, said Carol Simpson, executive director of the planning board.
The board is already planning a forum for the spring with industry representatives to get the dialogue moving forward.
“I see this report as a glass half empty and a glass half full,” she said.
The full report is available online at www.workforceplanningboard.com.