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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Taking skilled trades in Ontario forward, finally

Stephen Hamilton
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Taking skilled trades in Ontario forward, finally

As the Ontario government gets set to announce a new body to replace the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) it can’t happen soon enough. OCOT was an unwieldy body that divided industry and fixated on enforcement and trade jurisdictional disputes. For the better part of a decade, it became such a polarizing distraction that its claim to fame was setting the entire skilled trades system back. Now, with OCOT out of the way, there’s an opportunity to put the focus where it should be.

What’s needed is a fresh start; a new agency to replace OCOT. It will have its work cut out for it though.

The priority, first and foremost should be taking the skilled trades to a whole new level. That means updating training so it’s in step with the times, and showing a new generation of young people, their parents, guidance counsellors and jobseekers why the trades are every bit as valuable as writing code, reading spreadsheets or practising law.

This will require a dramatic change in approach and attitude by this agency. No more preoccupation with enforcement. No more bureaucratic hoops and barriers that have made it so hard to open up opportunities in the trades. No more preventing businesses from taking an active role in apprenticeships. Without question, lessons can be learned from OCOT’s missteps. And there were many.

It’s no mystery why the plug was pulled on OCOT. It was given the better part of a decade to improve apprenticeship competition rates, modernize training curriculum and encourage more jobseekers to become skilled tradespeople. Since its debut in 2009, OCOT not only failed to address these issues, any skilled trades employer and aspiring apprentice will tell you, it made things worse.

During OCOT’s reign, 39 per cent of Ontario businesses couldn’t find the skilled people they required. Fewer than half (47 per cent) of those who started an apprenticeship program in Ontario completed it.

Pending baby boom retirements exacerbated a skilled trades shortage projected to top 100,000 workers and climbing. At the same time, interest in the trades waned. Only about 26 per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 said they would consider a career in the skilled trades. All the while, our economy suffered.

The Conference Board of Canada estimates the gap between the skills employers need, and those workers have, costs the Ontario economy about $24 billion annually in lost economic opportunity.

Although OCOT was supposed to be an industry driven regulatory body, it did not reflect industry. Its governance structure was flawed. It was controlled by a small group of GTA-centric special interests. Even the previous government recognized this and undertook two significant reviews — one by Tony Dean and the other Chris Bentley — to reform OCOT based on numerous concerns from both industry and workers. Although several legislative amendments were made, it still wasn’t enough to fix what had become a genuinely dysfunctional body.

OCOT became so hung up on regulatory enforcement, there was no real effort to modernize skills training, encourage apprentices to stick with it or promote the trades.

The current government at least has been working to accomplish what OCOT could not. It cut through years of excessive regulation and red tape. It listened to employers and very quickly put in place a 1:1 journeyperson-to-apprentice ratio. This is a big deal, especially for small businesses, as it has allowed them to open up training opportunities right away. The province also launched a skilled trades promotion blitz.

The next step, under the direction of a new agency, is a trades promotion and recruitment body that will help to more formally address the ever-evolving needs of a sector that is crucial to Ontario’s economy. This will involve working across government to ensure that young people are exposed to the skilled trades at the earliest age possible. We know this goes a long way in helping a generation fully appreciate the value, excitement and importance of learning and making a living in the trades.

Employers can now do what they’ve been asking all along; hire and mentor more skilled trades workers. Jobseekers also have a better chance of turning a passion for the trades into a lifelong career. The province is on the right track. With the right focus, a new agency can address Ontario’s skilled trades shortage, but only if OCOT’s mistakes aren’t repeated.

Stephen Hamilton is chair of the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance. Send Industry Perspectives comments and column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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