Ontario has been caught in a classic Catch-22: employers can’t find enough skilled trades people to fill jobs, while job seekers can’t find appropriate training and apprenticeship opportunities to work in the skilled trades.
For the longest time employers and skilled tradespeople have been calling for bold measures to turn things around. Now it’s finally happening.
The Doug Ford government’s Making Ontario Open for Business Act is the kind of reform that is long overdue.
Employers have tried hard to convince the Ontario government to take a bold approach to elevate the skilled trades. Modernize skills training. Cut red tape. Make it easier, not harder for people to get into the skilled trades.
The provincial response was a let down.
Just when industry thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. The Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) made its debut in 2009.
Created by the previous government, it was supposed to be an industry-driven regulatory body aimed at putting the skilled trades on equal footing with other professions.
Instead, OCOT became a bureaucratic monster with a flawed governance structure that did not reflect industry. It jacked up licensing fees and fixated on the narrowest part of its mandate — regulatory enforcement.
In fairly short order, OCOT went off the rails. It became the bane of both skilled tradespeople and industry employers. Rocky relations with the enforcement branch were beyond repair. OCOT was a polarizing distraction that was too broken and far-gone to reign back in.
In hindsight, too much attention was paid to OCOT and not enough to shifting demographics and the increasing role of the skilled trades.
Now we’re playing catch-up. During the next five years, one in five new jobs will be in the skilled trades. At the same time, as many as 39 per cent of Ontario businesses can’t find the skilled people they require. Exacerbating the challenge is our aging workforce.
Ontario needs as many as 85,000 new skilled workers this decade. That’s to counter the baby boom exodus, as 21 per cent of the skilled workforce gets ready to retire. Quite simply, demand is far outpacing the supply of skilled workers.
Narrowing the skills gap is no easy task. But at least the Ford government knows what it takes.
Its reforms are bold; a welcome departure from more of the “same old.”
They include a moratorium on trade classifications, a 1:1 journeyperson-to-apprentice ratio, and a wind-down of OCOT. These measures have topped wish lists for years and for good reason.
The Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance has been a strong advocate of reducing journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios.
Now, more businesses will be able to hire apprentices. This is a big deal, especially for small businesses like those working in residential renovation and new home construction.
In fact, many are already making plans to hire as soon as the legislation is enacted. Opening up training opportunities right away and getting new workers up to speed will go a long way in bridging the skills gap.
The moratorium on trade classifications will help address the quagmire created by OCOT. Its classification review process involved an out-of-date scopes of practice regulation that would have limited what certain trades could do on the job.
The result was more barriers to entry, more people required to do the work and higher costs.
The moratorium on trade classifications stabilizes the skilled trades, providing greater clarity and certainty moving forward about who can do what, which is critical in sectors like construction.
As OCOT packs up and we breathe a collective sigh of relief, it’s time to refocus on what really matters: bridging the skills gap, promoting the trades as a first career choice and creating a straight forward way of laying out all the options.
Just as important, driving the message that the skilled trades have changed. Modern, multi-skilled tradespeople, equipped with hard and soft skills are a must as technology and the economy advance.
We applaud the Ford government. It’s wasted no time in breaking down years of excessive regulation and red tape. Now employers finally get to do what they’ve been asking all along: hire and mentor the next generation of skilled workers.
Or simply put, just give those with a passion for the trades a chance.
Patrick McManus is chair of the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance. Send comments and Industry Perspectives column ideas to