The Ford government’s plan to introduce a skill-sets system for the building trades in Ontario was repeatedly slammed at the recent annual convention of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario held in Niagara Falls.
The critics referred to the plan as “de-skilling” the trades. NDP Trades, Training and Apprenticeship Critic Guy Bourgouin, trained as a millwright, said the effects of de-skilling on the skilled trades would be “catastrophic” while construction labour consultant John O’Grady said the plan’s purpose is to create a pool of semi-skilled, lower-paid workers and warned the delegates, “Make no mistake, it is a bullet and it has your name on it.”
Building Trades business manager Patrick Dillon noted there seemed to be a pause by the government in carrying the skill-sets plan out with the September appointment of two advisors to consult with industry. But he also said after Bourgouin’s presentation, “At some point we may need to up the ante. It may mean demonstrations, it may be shutdowns, but we have to get the attention of the government of the day.”
The skill-sets plan was introduced by the government in its April budget and implemented soon after in the Modernizing the Skilled Trades and Apprenticeship Act. The legislation revamps the skills training system following the dismantling of the Ontario College of Trades and gives the minister of labour, training and skills development, as the ministry is now called, the discretion to prescribe regulations that define new skill sets for trades.
The new system of restricted skill sets replaces the old compulsory trades, O’Grady explained to the delegates on day two of the conference Oct. 18.
“What is currently considered a compulsory trade will be replaced by skill sets that are restricted,” O’Grady later said in an interview.
“For example, pulling a conduit can be taken out of the skill set for an electrician and made a standalone skill set. And you may or may not want to make it a restricted skill set. But you wouldn’t have to be an apprentice or an electrician, you would just have to have a certificate in conduit installation.”
Even non-compulsory trades could have scopes of practice hived off under the new system, O’Grady explained, giving labourers as an example. Instead of the construction craft worker, there might be a utilities worker or a mason’s tender certified with limited defined skills.
To revolutionize the whole system and throw it out and think it will not have an impact on productivity is insane,
— Patrick Dillon
Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario
The new minister, named Oct. 21, is Monte McNaughton. He will draw up regulations based on the advice of the two Training and Skills Advisors appointed in September.
A request for comments sent to the ministry went unanswered.
Premier Ford said in introducing the new system it would speed up certification and training in the skilled trades, without compromising health and safety.
“Maybe that meets an employer’s needs but it certainly does not meet a worker’s needs,” said O’Grady. “It means you are confined to that skill set and that particular sector. In the long run what this does, it creates a parallel system…over here you’ve got this other pool of labour which is composed of semi-skilled workers who have a certification for a skill set and who are lower paid.
“We know in an industry that is cost-competitive, the lower paid pool of labour will come to dominate.”
Bourgouin noted B.C. introduced skills sets in 2003 and the results were a “disaster.”
There was a race to the bottom generated, the skilled trades saw a decline in enrolment and the injury rate of B.C. tradespeople is now multiple times that of Ontario, he said.
“The employer has no interest in them advancing,” O’Grady explained of workers with “micro credentials.”
“If their employer had an interest in them advancing, he would have them in an apprenticeship. They are certified in a skill set because that is all the employer wants.”
O’Grady noted it was the residential sector that was influencing the government and it was time for the ICI sector to step up.
“Don’t let condo builders define the skilled trades,” he said.
O’Grady facilitated a strategy session of Building Trades members on Sept. 19 that he said studied such issues as how the trades fund apprenticeships, how completion rates can be improved, how to strengthen outreach, how the system can more effectively integrate health and safety with training and how the Building Trades can ensure it has an informed voice promoting better management of the skilled trades system.
The next step is up to Dillon and his executive board, said O’Grady.
“They would need a dual strategy, one to blunt the impact and one to counter it if it is implemented,” he said.
Dillon told the delegates they had a lot of work to do to press their case against de-skilling as the government moves on consultations with the industry, that they had to be “bold.”
“It is amazing how that could be happening at a time when any government with any objectivity could look and see they have the most productive workforce in North America,” he said.
“To revolutionize the whole system and throw it out and think it will not have an impact on productivity is insane.”
Follow Don Wall on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.