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Claims against Ontario College of Trades "baseless", says Armstrong

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A cadre of construction companies has formed a “coalition” to oppose the newly created Ontario College of Trades, claiming it adds nothing of value and its main purpose is to benefit the unions. These are baseless charges, and ignore the imperative to expand our skilled-trades base if we are to remain competitive.

In 2007, I was asked by Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) to examine the state of the province’s skilled trades, with particular reference to the adequacy of existing apprenticeship training practices and journeyperson certification requirements.

I concluded there was considerable scope for improvement, especially with the expanding complexity of the trades and their increased reliance on the ability of tradespersons to master intricate digital technologies.

Particular attention was given to methodologies for determining ratios — i.e., the number of journeypersons required to train, monitor and supervise the work of apprentices — and to compulsory certification — i.e., trades whose complexity and health and safety ramifications require mandatory certification as a condition of employment.

Hence my principal recommendation for a provincial College of Trades covering all sectors — not only construction, but industrial, motive power and services, as well — which was subsequently adopted and enacted in the College of Trades and Apprenticeship Act, 2009.

Why a college?

There are at least eight reasons:

— To raise the public profile and status of the trades and remove any stigma or sense of inferiority held by parents, teachers, employers or students concerning trades as opposed to other post-secondary education.

— To increase diversity within all trades, with particular emphasis on gender, age and ethnicity, so as to attract more women, Aboriginal workers, at-risk youth and new Canadians to the trades profession, especially in the face of predicted shortages in key areas as the workforce ages.

— To establish a broadly representative governance structure, headed by a board of governors representing all major players — employers, tradespersons, apprentices, trainers and the public — with appropriate interaction with the MTCU trades specialists and other affected ministries, working collaboratively beyond their historic silos to achieve common interests.

— To ensure, through regulations and strengthened enforcement, that the key objectives and priorities of all trades are identified and met: e.g., proper scope of practice; adoption of adequate measures to protect the health and safety of workers and consumers; increased environmental protection; timely application of the varying demographics of supply and demand to attract more apprentices and encourage them to obtain full journeyperson certifications.

— To share and apply the substantial research, analytical and substantially enhanced enforcement capabilities being developed by the college.

— To provide an effective performance accountability system for all trades, similar to the structures in place for teachers, accountants, architects, lawyers and other professions, including provisions for consumer complaints, with appropriate remedies.

— To provide for neutral and impartial adjudication of ratio and compulsory certification issues by a carefully selected roster, with panels chaired by adjudicators experienced in employment law, required by regulation to consider all relevant economic and labour market criteria.

— To mobilize the strengthened enforcement capabilities of the college to assist in combating the illegal underground economy, especially in the construction industry.

These principles are all incorporated, directly or by implication, in the act and supporting regulations in accordance with the implementation report by Mr. Justice Kevin Whitaker following his intensive consultations with stakeholders.

As the board moves to formal implementation April 8, criticisms have, inevitably, arisen.

So far, the bulk of the concerns have come from minority elements in the construction sector, which comprises 33 of the approximately 154 trades covered by the legislation.

Few, if any, concerns have been expressed by the industrial, motive power or service sectors.

It is recognized that legitimate apprehensions must be addressed.

To this end, the College board, the appointments council and the ministry are committed to working with the parties to reassure them that the act and regulations are applied so as to respond to all justifiable concerns.

A co-operative, non-confrontational and fully and accurately informed approach between now and the April 8 implementation date will assist Ontario in establishing the first college of its kind, to the benefit of almost 600,000 Ontario journeypersons and apprentices, their employers, the public and the increasingly competitive economy at large.

Tim Armstrong, a lawyer and former Ontario deputy minister of labour and industry, trade and technology, is chair of the College of Trades Appointments Council.

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