Two Ontario electrical sector organizations have released a report recommending steps forward for the Ontario government to fill the void left by the demise of the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT).
Executives with the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – Construction Council of Ontario (IBEW-CCO) say the paper, titled A Legacy for the Future: An Apprenticeship System that Works!, represents more than just an attempt to let the government know they want to be consulted as policy is developed on apprenticeships and trades regulation following the Doug Ford government’s decision to axe OCOT.
The Making Ontario Open for Business Act, which provided for the wind-down of OCOT in 2019 and established a one-to-one journeyperson-to-apprentice ratio for every trade for which ratios apply, received royal assent in November.
“Absolutely,” something has to replace OCOT, said ECAO executive director Graeme Aitken in an interview.
“But we are trying to do something more. What we are looking to do is engage in conversations with the government to build a system that is going to last and is capable of adapting to different cycles and demands in the industry.
“Rather than just a replacement piece, we would like to work with them on something that will stand the test of time.”
The ECAO/IBEW paper calls for:
-trade qualifications such as Red Seal standards that have real value and meet the needs of Ontario’s economy;
-robust industry engagement;
-protecting the public interest through enforcement that is undertaken by technically competent, experienced and respected bodies that are focused on protecting the public interest; and
-planning and management of the apprenticeship system that is evidence-based.
Aitken acknowledged the report supports a number of the aims and accomplishments of OCOT.
“Yes, a comparable system with a lot of the elements of OCOT is needed,” he said.
“But we think quite frankly OCOT bit off more than it could chew. If they started with the compulsory trades, that might have been an approach to go forward with.”
Aitken worked with IBEW-CCO executive chairman James Barry on the report, which was authored by labour economist John O’Grady.
“We feel as leaders in apprenticeship training, it is very important for both the ECAO and IBEW to be part of the conversation to help shape any future model,” commented Barry in emailed statements.
“As a first step, we wanted to provide the government with some independent research that would help them understand the issues and opportunities and help begin the discussion.”
Barry said the three pillars of the proposed model are a commitment to Red Seal, enforcement within the trade by a body like the Electrical Standards Association (ESA) and industry leadership.
“Working with the ESA is a starting point,” said Aitken. “We have made it very clear that the licensing and regulatory functions need to be very different.”
The OCOT model that regulated the construction trades with others such as hairdressers and auto mechanics should be avoided, he said.
“We think a self-regulating model that recognizes the uniqueness of the electrical industry within the unique construction industry is appropriate,” Aitken said.
The IBEW is the unionized labour partner of contractors who are members of the ECAO. Aitken said next steps, already underway, include consulting with the Ontario Electrical League, which represents non-unionized contractors, and the Ontario government.
A first meeting with Minister of training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton resulted in positive information-sharing, said Aitken.
“The folks we have met with in the current government seem to be interested in learning about the construction industry and our apprenticeships,” he said. “They seem to be eager to learn, receptive to ideas, and that is encouraging.”
The IBEW/ECAO report compared the “skill-set” model of apprenticeships that the author said failed in British Columbia with the “earn while you learn” model that the stakeholders favour. The report spoke approvingly of Alberta’s system, which has 37 compulsory trades versus 23 in Ontario.
“For Ontario to truly be open for business it must ensure that business and workers play a role in the apprenticeship system,” said Barry.
“The earn-while-you-learn model is a critical component as it ensures employers are part of the process from the beginning, addresses the economy’s needs but also gives young people hands-on experience at the outset. A skill-set model that has been proposed by colleges in which students go to college first, incur debt and then have to find an employer and find out if they like the work does not make sense. It risks not having a proper workforce as well as generating graduates with no job prospects.”
On the issue of compulsory trades, Barry said, “The most important step is a thorough trade classification process that is administered by people who understand the trades.”
Aitken said, “We would certainly rather see more than less.”
As an important next step, Barry said, “The government must give us a call.”
“Ontario should be positioning itself as the best place to work and live and invest because we offer high standards and quality work that is completely safely done by reliable, skilled trades.”