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Construction labour industry wants 25 per cent apprentice quota

Jean Sorensen
Construction labour industry wants 25 per cent apprentice quota

Construction labour representatives in B.C. are looking for the provincial government to set a firm quota, stating 25 per cent of those employed on new government projects should be apprentices.

"Really, we should go after the private sector as well," said Irene Lanzinger, president of the BC Federation of Labour, adding if the private construction sector is not fully engaged, employers working on those sites will be poaching skilled labour in the future.

It was the B.C. government that originally came up with the 25 per cent figure, said Lanzinger, pointing to the premier’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Working Group.

A B.C. press release states, "Much of the driving force to increase opportunities for apprenticeship sponsorship comes from recommendations made in two reports: the McDonald ITA Report and the premier’s Liquefied Natural Gas Working Group, which aspires to a goal of having 25 per cent of overall workforce on LNG-related construction projects to be apprentice-able trades."

But BC Construction Association president Chris Atchison said he isn’t keen on setting a quota. Such a quota may be difficult to meet in the event of looming skills shortages and affect a company when bidding on a contract, he maintains.

B.C. is seeing more Alberta journeymen, who supervise apprentices, coming to the province, but should the oil patch rebound those individuals may return home leaving an increased gap as baby boomers retire.

"I think if we put a fixed number on it then it becomes an expectation that you have to meet and if the labour is not there to meet it, you could be in a bit of a corner," Atchison said.

Atchison said the 25 per cent brought forward by the LNG working group is more of an aspiration than a firm figure.

However, several B.C. labour leaders stated they want the LNG figure transferred to the 2015 Apprentices on Public Projects policy as a firm figure since the current policy is not putting enough apprentices onto jobsites.

"There is a generation of tradespeople retiring which started some years ago. We are not training the next generation to the extent that we need to," said Lanzinger. "Government should be setting a good example."

In 2015, the B.C. government launched its Apprentices on Public Projects policy which set out that contractors working on government projects valued at over $15 million had to demonstrate a commitment to an in-house apprenticeship training program. As well, subcontractors hired on such projects, who have contracts valued at more than $500,000, also had to demonstrate a commitment to Red Seal apprenticeship training. The program relates to all new major infrastructure projects undertaken by health authorities, ministries of the B.C. government, boards of education, public post-secondary institutions and BC Hydro.

The difficulty with the program, said Lanzinger, is that it only provides for showing a commitment to training apprentices but sets no numbers of apprentices working on projects.

Lanzinger said the program’s weakness is demonstrated in the B.C. government’s recent $13 million announcement to renovate and expand the North Island College’s trades training facilities.

"They are building a training centre to train apprentices and they don’t guarantee employee apprentices on the job," she said.

She also believes there is room for using apprentices on projects that are less than $15 million as well as using more apprentices in maintenance roles within municipalities and schools.

She said some crown corporations such as BC Hydro and private corporations such as Houle Electric are stepping up and providing opportunities for apprentices on projects, but generally government and private sector companies have been slow to uptake on the program.

Lanzinger is also critical of the amount of information that the B.C. government has released on the success of its 2015 apprentice policy. The government maintains that companies are reluctant, for competitive reasons, to release the data publicly, she said.

Summary data as of Dec. 31, 2016, released by the government on 13 government projects, shows that eight companies required the use of apprentices while five were voluntary (under $15 million). The data tracks Red Seal apprentices from third quarter 2015-2016 through to third quarter 2016-2017. Of the projects where apprentices were required, the figures have been rising (four, seven, 14, 36 and 56 respectively per quarter). BC Hydro’s Peace River project, in the last three quarters, accounted for four, 17 and 22 apprentices. The figures for five companies that voluntarily used apprentices during the same period on smaller projects ranged from 0 to 11.

"I think that it was a good first step and there is more to be done," said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the BC and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council.

He said he is in full support of setting a firm quota of 25 per cent on all government projects. While the original policy was an incentive to construction companies wanting to win government contracts, Sigurdson said the time has come to bring in firm guidelines as more apprenticeship spots are needed.

"They have to use the stick rather than the carrot now," he said.

"We spend billions of dollars a year in education (to get individuals into trades and trades courses) and we spend billions on infrastructure projects such as bridges, roads and buildings. But, there is a disconnect; we are still not providing the hours on the tools that apprentices need."

Sigurdson said the first 2016 figures issued on the program do not provide a lot of information.

Atchison said he has not heard any negative feedback regarding the policy implemented in 2015, but rather his members recognize the importance of skills training and providing apprenticeship training. Companies that are not required to use apprentices on smaller government projects are still choosing to do so, according to the 2016 government figures released.

"It is a wonderful statement for the construction industry when we see that commitment and that the importance of apprentices is being recognized," he said.

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