An Ontario government plan to radically transform the trades training framework by introducing “portable skill sets” is being hailed by contractor groups as a forward-thinking approach to the skills shortage, however it’s drawing fire from the unionized building trades.
The changes were included in Schedule 40 of Bill 100 which recently received Royal Assent. The changes will introduce certification in portable skill sets, providing more flexibility to both workers and employers. As it stands now, Ontario’s tradespeople are required to master the full scope of a trade to complete an apprenticeship and obtain certification.
The plan, according to contractors, will enable the construction industry to respond to the skills shortage and needs of a rapidly changing economy because it paves the way for workers to be trained faster and obtain skill sets in different trades so they’ll be more versatile.
David Frame, director of government relations at the Ontario General Contractors Association, said the changes will help to ensure the system is updated and modernized.
“We’re definitely in favour of this direction.”
The industry is in a skills crisis right now, he noted, and every one of the association’s member companies indicates that the lack of access to skilled trades is affecting their business.
Ideally the new system will attract new apprentices in large numbers,
— Ian Cunningham
Council of Ontario Construction Associations
“Unfortunately,” he said, “what we’re looking at from government is systemic changes which will not impact the availability of trades for at least two or probably more like four years out, so in the short term we have some real skills challenges that we’re going to have to work with.”
The unionized building trades, though, maintain the changes will merely undermine safety, water down the trades and pave the way towards a lower-paid and lower-skilled workforce.
“Absent many details which have yet to be established, we are principally against moving towards a portable skill-set model of trades training, and away from wholesome trades,” said Pat Dillon, business manager of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario. “Doing so will undermine safety and our industry’s ability to attract youth, women, Aboriginals and other traditionally under-represented groups to the trades.
“In our view, it will seriously undermine productivity in the construction industry in the province of Ontario.”
Dillon said the changes, if implemented, will threaten worker safety, put a dent in productivity and lead to fewer workers in Ontario graduating in wholesome apprenticeships.
Ontario should be looking to improve on an already-strong trades training system… not to water it down,
— Pat Dillon
Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario
“Everyone should understand that the highest-trained, most productive workforce in the construction industry in any jurisdiction in North America is right here in Ontario, and the basis for that trained workforce is a wholesome apprenticeship,” he explained. “It is the intent of the unionized building trades apprenticeship trainers to ignore the ‘skill-set’ mechanism and to continue to train to the highest standard possible driven by safety and productivity.”
However, a number of contractor groups like the Council of Ontario Construction Associations (COCA), maintain the move is a step forward to help address the skilled trade shortage.
“Ideally the new system will attract new apprentices in large numbers, deliver modern, up-to-date curriculum, turn apprentices into high-performing workers and improve completion rates,” said COCA president Ian Cunningham.
“Contractors should be encouraged to take on apprentices and to actively support their learning. Hopefully the new system will be the long-term fix to the skills shortage that we need.”
COCA will be working with its members, other stakeholders and senior officials at Queen’s Park to flesh out a framework with the goal of developing a modern, efficient system that serves apprentices, journeypersons, employers and the provincial economy, he said.
Sean Reid, vice-president and regional director, Ontario, for the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, said the changes outline a “pretty transformative vision” for the skilled trades.
“The pace of change in the construction industry is very fast right now and there’s no sign it will be slowing down anytime soon. We need to equip the next generation of building professionals with the ability to quickly adapt and upgrade their skills to meet these shifting market needs.”
Adaptability and flexibility are prerequisites to success in today’s market and economy, he added, and it’s important for the construction industry to have a training system reflective of that.
Dillon said the announcement appears to embrace the concept of “skill sets” over and above any given trade as a wholesome profession which requires substantive and comprehensive training and appears to be driven by the folks who don’t invest in or practice apprenticeship trades training, as legitimate trades trainers haven’t been consulted.
Reid emphasized that the change will not stop an individual from taking up a full trade as an electrician or plumber but does inject more flexibility into the training system so that an individual can pursue additional certifications to do other work to adapt to changing market needs.
Government is embracing the reality that the economy is more adaptable and changing than it has ever been and “we need a trade training system that reflects that same reality,” he said.
Another benefit, said Reid, is that a tradesperson with additional certifications can stay on a job longer and do other work, meaning a company doesn’t have to go out and hire a new worker.
“They can simply move their existing good professional from one task over to another project. It saves enormous resources on the hiring process, but also gives the employee far more job security and a much more rewarding and interesting and diverse career experience.”
Patrick McManus, chair of the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance, said the changes should help attract more people to the industry.
“We’re really in favour of what they’re doing because nobody has a reliable pipeline of workers that are trying to find a career in the trades. There’s an exodus and we’ve been talking about it for a decade. You have to figure out a way to have a reliable pipeline of people.”
Successive governments have spent a lot of money trying to resolve the issue but end up doing the same thing, he noted.
“What this government is proposing is something quite brand new. We feel this is one of the big pieces that are going to get people into the labour market faster.”
However, Dillon said a similar change in British Columbia more than a decade ago showed that “watering down” the trades hurts the construction industry and keeps workers in a perpetual state of low-pay, low-skill precariousness and, as a result, B.C. is now scrambling to attract skilled trades from outside the province to work on infrastructure projects.
“Ontario should be looking to improve on an already-strong trades training system that we do have, not to water it down by breaking up the trades into fragmented skill-sets,” he said.