Recent amendments to Nova Scotia’s Apprenticeship and Trades Qualifications Act aimed at strengthening the system and increasing apprentice safety will meet that objective only if the province puts enough enforcement officers on the streets to catch “bad actors” in the industry.
That is according to Duncan Williams, president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia (CANS), who says the province should have five to seven enforcement officers across the province.
The amendments allow enforcement officers to inspect employer sites any time, day or night, that work is being performed. Contractors not in compliance will face a first-offence penalty of $10,000 (up from $5,000) and $50,000 (up from $10,000) for a second offence.
The changes to the act came about because there has been “little to no enforcement,” says Williams, noting the system was “complaint driven. We have got businesses (contractors) doing business without competent people on staff. It’s more rampant in rural parts of Nova Scotia.
“It is a real disincentive for companies investing (in labour training) when they are competing with companies that don’t invest.”
He adds there are union and non-union “capable and certified” tradespeople without work because some contractors are hiring unqualified labour.
Contractors performing work in any of the compulsory certified trades must have a qualified crew including indentured apprentices. But that is not always the case.
Williams paints a scenario where a contractor might be installing framing, drywall, plumbing and heat pumps but is not certified in any of those trades.
“It is a little bit of the Wild West in some parts of the industry,” he says.
Often the contractors are working under the table.
“Essentially what it has come down to is a lot of companies know that the apprenticeship agency’s capacity to enforce the act doesn’t exist,” he explains.
He says with a corps of enforcement officers hitting construction sites unexpectedly, changes could happen quickly in the industry.
“I think it would be very effective and it won’t take a lot of time before the message is received,” he states.
There is an assumption that a trade contractor on a commercial site has competent trades “but nobody is necessarily going around and saying, ‘show me all your apprenticeship cards and that you are qualified to do this,’” adds Williams.
While the problems occur in all sectors, residential might be the worst.
“The fact is that most homeowners don’t realize when somebody comes onsite, they become the general contractor,” he says.
An owner’s insurance company could reject an incident claim if the contractor responsible is uncertified.
Williams says CANS wants the province to mount an education campaign for construction buyers — from homeowners to commercial developers.
Lack of fall arrest training is one of the main sources of industry incidents, says Williams.
“The companies committed to apprenticeship generally are committed to safety programs. The challenge is when Joe Blow comes to install your heat pump and they are not qualified electricians,” he says. “It is not only a safety issue for the installers but it is a safety issue for the consumer.”
He says the construction association has been lobbying the province to hire additional enforcement officers for some time.
“Despite the upfront costs, the return is pretty significant, especially from a public safety and a compliance point of view,” he says.
A scarcity of skilled trades could become a major problem if the industry can’t attract enough young apprentices while aging crews are still around to train them.
“There is going to be a very sharp uptick in the number of retirements in the next five to seven years,” says Williams. “The worry is that we won’t have anybody left to properly train these folks if we don’t get them into the system now.”