De-skilling skilled trades in Ontario won’t attract new workers

“You’re absolute champions, each and every one of you, and I thank you, thank you, thank you.”

A little while ago, Ontario Premier Doug Ford let his love shine for the province’s skilled trades workers.

“I absolutely love the tradespeople,” he gushed during a visit to the Darlington nuclear plant.

The Premier went to Darlington to announce his government’s plan to attract new workers to the trades. Employers say there’s a looming shortage of carpenters, pipefitters and other tradespeople. They need more skilled workers.

So what’s the province’s plan to beef up the number of tradespeople? Pay the new ones less.

The Premier and his then-minister of training, Merrillee Fullerton, didn’t come right out and say that, of course. They said their new system would be “flexible” and “streamlined,” which sounds good. In fact, though, their plan for the trades will mean many new workers get less training—and get paid less as a result. For its part, the province will get fewer actual tradespeople.

To understand the new plan, it helps to know how trades training works.

Right now, it takes around five years of classroom and on-the-job study to learn the full range of skills to be an electrician or a boilermaker. Apprentices get paid to learn, and when they finish, they become a certified journeyperson. If they pass the “Red Seal” test for their trade, they can work in any province.

But under the new provincial plan, the government will let employers chop whole trades into pieces, which they call “portable skill sets.” Instead of becoming a carpenter, for example, you might apprentice as a “framing technician.” When you finished your training in a year or two, you’d get a certificate. Problem is, you wouldn’t be paid as a full-fledged carpenter, for the simple reason that you wouldn’t be one.

This whole plan has been tried before, in British Columbia. It didn’t work.

Back in 2003, B.C. changed the way it did trades training. Under the new rules, employers often trained workers in only a handful of skill sets, and lots of workers never got trained in whole trades. These new workers couldn’t practice their trade in other provinces; a 2013 report by Prism Economics and Analysis found “a dramatic decline in Red Seal certification” in B.C.

And on top of that, on-the-job injury rates went up.

Last year, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby, said it was time to end the experiment. They called on the province to stop certifying skill sets and “re-align with the certification practices of the rest of Canada.”

In other words, the old way was better.

Ontario doesn’t need to de-skill our skilled trades. If employers want to attract more apprentices, it’s easy: make sure the jobs are well paid. Make sure the jobs are safe. Make sure the jobs are welcoming to new applicants.

That’s how you make “absolute champions.”


Randy Robinson is the Ontario Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow him at @Randyfrobinson.

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