The Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance (OSTA) has long-been a critic of the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT) and so we feel it’s important to respond to some of the revisionist history in the recent article “Building Trades weigh in on OCOT replacement.”
OCOT was a failed experiment that had morphed into a self-serving and unwieldy bureaucracy, whose claim to fame was fining barbershops, enflaming labour-relations conflicts and creating more red tape. Let’s do a quick refresher on OCOT’s failed track record.
Rather than wind down OCOT, and build a better, more modernized skilled trades system, it has been suggested that the approach should have been to “change a couple of things the College could do better.”
A couple of things?
The reality is that OCOT was so broken, that nothing short of a total tear down will do.
From the get-go, OCOT’s governance structure was just plain wrong. Devised by the previous government, it fell into the trap of being controlled by a small group of GTA-centric special interests. As it became operational, it became clear to everyone that what was created was not as advertised.
The previous government saw this and undertook two significant reviews, one by Tony Dean and the other Chris Bentley, to reform OCOT based on the significant negative feedback from industry and workers.
Several legislative amendments were made to address some of the concerns that both reviewers made. However, those changes were only scratching the surface to address what was a genuinely flawed institution.
Dominated by representatives of compulsory certified trades, the priority was blatant self-interest.
Making more trades compulsory expanded their financial base and created greater scarcity in the labour supply. This inherent conflict of interest bred division.
It wasn’t long before OCOT became a polarizing distraction. It fixated on divisive regulations and actively asserted favoured unions jurisdictional scope through its enforcement division. This came at the expense of the public interest, non-union contractors and rival unions.
Recall the case of Stacey Electric; a contractor working on the Windsor Herb Gray Parkway in 2014, where labourers were installing conduit. This work had been done without electricians for decades, without any noted safety concerns or regulatory concerns cited by other agencies like the ESA. This wasn’t good enough for OCOT enforcement, which decided it had the authority to issue fines repeatedly to the company, unless it performed the work to OCOT’s interpretation of how the industry works.
A regulatory enforcement arm with the power to impact who gets to do what work, without a clear safety rationale, is dangerous. Its actions directly affected the livelihoods of workers – not because of health and safety – but because of OCOT’s confusing and inconsistent approach to enforcing a trades scope of practice.
This should strike us all as extreme government overreach.
While jurisdictional turf wars were enflamed by OCOT, the more important issues of apprenticeship completion rates, promotion of the trades, modernizing teaching and updating curriculums, were not addressed.
While OCOT was operating, employers will tell you the skills gap grew wider without any direction by OCOT of what should be done to address this problem.
It’s clear that OCOT’s structure made up of labour management styled trade boards didn’t work. And yet, some insist that trade boards should stay, despite clear gaps that the labour/management OCOT model created.
While employer and worker representation should be a component of governance, they cannot be the only voices at the table. Skills Ontario, the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program and Ontario’s Colleges were effectively shut out of OCOT decision-marking.
As a result, Ontario lagged far behind the rest of Canada in apprenticeship registrations. And completion rates dropped too. The 2016 Annual Report of the Auditor General shows that fewer than half (47 per cent) of those who started an apprenticeship program in Ontario, finished it.
With as many as one in five future jobs in Ontario in the skilled trades, there’s no more time for spinning wheels. The Doug Ford government recognizes the urgency and consequences of not building a workforce that’s equipped with the skills that employers need and our economy demands in order to grow and stay competitive.
We commend the Ford government for its leadership in winding down OCOT and lowering apprenticeship ratios. We support its plan to take the province’s skilled trades system in a completely different direction, by working to make it more modern, flexible and appealing to a whole new generation.
This government is on the right track. We all have a vested interest in ensuring that OCOT’s replacement does a better job at closing the skills gap. Ontario has an opportunity to become a leader in the skilled trades. Now is not the time to turn back the clock.
Stephen Hamilton is chair of the Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance. Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.