With Wab Kinew and the NDP taking over political power in Manitoba, the provincial building trades are hoping to have a more prominent voice on issues and ensure the government honours its pledge to restore the 1:1 ratio of apprentices to journeypersons in the construction industry.
“The biggest thing is that we really want to make sure that labour is heard by government – and has a seat at the table,” says Tanya Palson, executive director of the Manitoba Building Trades. “Over the last administration, we were removed from the sector council, we were removed from the apprenticeship board. I don’t remember the last time we had a meeting with a member of the governing party.
“Over the last few years, we’ve only been able to get meetings with the Opposition. We represent almost 10,000 workers in Manitoba. These are high-paid, upper-middle-class workers in a lot of cases and so we’re just happy to have somebody who’s willing to listen and look at things more systemically.”
Specifically, the building trades will be seeking to have the NDP reverse changes brought in by the previous PC government in 2020 that set the ratio of apprentices to journeypersons at 2:1. On the campaign trail, Kinew promised to restore the 1:1 ratio and increase the number of apprentices in the construction industry.
“The majority of your training as an apprentice or trades worker is on-the-job training, 80 per cent of it,” explains Palson. “If, as a journeyperson, you’re having to double the people you’re managing, and you’re not able to supervise them, it leads to safety issues. It is, for sure, about safety but it’s also about actually getting the skills transferred from the journeyperson to the apprentice.
“We absolutely support the 1:1 ratio and it’s something that we’ll be looking to implement right away.”
However, the Winnipeg Construction Association (WCA) wants the ratio left as it is, arguing that permitting two apprentices to every journeyperson leads to more construction trades being trained.
Prior to the election, WCA president Ron Hambley wrote to Kinew to object to changing the policy and requested that the provincial government consider other measures to boost the trades.
“I believe that reducing the apprenticeship ratio back to 1:1 will not improve workplace safety and will potentially have negative consequences for Manitoba’s economy and workforce,” he stated.
With the construction industry already facing a shortage of skilled workers, including apprentices, Hambley said a 2:1 ratio allows an employer to double its journeyperson workforce in four years.
“Reverting to a 1-1 apprenticeship ratio will slow the expansion of the construction workforce. A shortage of skilled workers not only hampers the progress of construction projects but also has broader economic implications for the province.”
Moreover, he argued, it’s important to consider the financial aspect of changing the ratio.
“A change to a 1:1 ratio is likely to increase construction costs with less apprentices on any given construction project. In a competitive economic environment, such cost increases could deter investment in Manitoba’s construction sector, potentially leading to reduced growth and job opportunities.”
The WCA letter notes while safety is of paramount importance, instead of imposing a rigid 1:1 ratio there are alternative approaches that could be explored to ensure the well-being of construction workers, such as enhancing training programs, improving safety protocols and strengthening oversight mechanisms of the system.
“I urge you to consider these concerns when evaluating a change to apprenticeship ratios,” Hambley wrote. “It’s crucial that any decision made takes into account the delicate balance between ensuring safety, addressing workforce shortages, and maintaining a favourable business environment.”
Further, he stated, “I believe that by engaging in a comprehensive dialogue and exploring alternative strategies, we can find a solution that safeguards both the construction industry and the welfare of its workforce.”
The NDP responded to the concerns in a letter, indicating construction is a vital part of the local economy and the party is “committed to creating more jobs for Manitobans in the trades and to significantly increasing the number of apprentices and skilled workers – good, strong jobs that allow families to afford a good life.”
The party indicated it will continue to listen to all stakeholders to ensure the current skilled worker shortage is fixed. In the letter, there was no direct response to the concerns about the ratio raised by the WCA.
The building trades say Manitoba construction workers took a back seat under the previous government and the changes proposed by the NDP are long overdue.
Under the PC government, project labour agreements were banned and the budget for apprenticeship training and government funding to public colleges was significantly reduced, according to Palson.
Contractors and associations have had their turn at influencing government policy, and it hasn’t resulted in more people entering the trades or staying in the industry, she said.
Palson believes the building trades, along with other organizations and contractors, and unions – which represent the majority of workers in the ICI sector – must be at the table because “if you’re listening to homebuilders, small contractors, residential homebuilding, heavy associations like horizontal infrastructure, you’re missing a complete piece of the workforce.”