Construction industry leaders are eager to see how new legislation introducing skilled trades certification back into B.C. could impact workers and employers as the shortage is already one of the top concerns for the sector.
“I think one positive thing is that there is a lot of industry in favour and some segments opposed,” said Chris Atchison, president of the BC Construction Association (BCCA). “That tells me both sides got a bit of what they wanted.”
The recently announced legislation would create SkilledTradesBC, a new Crown agency, who’s role would focus on overseeing the skills training requirements for apprentice and journeyman workers in 10 trades, including industrial electricians, heavy duty equipment technicians and gasfitters.
Under the new certification program, which could start later this year, workers would have at least one year to register for apprenticeship programs or take an exam to get certified.
While Atchison is supportive of the province’s goals, he said some concerns remain. He explained the electrical and mechanical trades the certification will cover are already heavily regulated through Technical Safety BC so the changes won’t represent a dramatic change in the market in terms of regulations.
“Where I think it could be problematic is when it comes to apprenticeship ratios,” said Atchison.
According to the BCCA, 80 per cent of the province’s construction companies have 10 employees or less, limiting their operational capacity to participate in the apprenticeship system. Atchison also wants to see action taken on the bottleneck that exists for trades training.
“There is a lot of emphasis around wanting to see more people aspire towards completing their training, not just starting their apprenticeship but moving through to completion,” said Atchison. “I think that is a noble message, but I also think that is where the barriers exist. Currently there is a shortage of available training and in fact the system disincentivizes some to complete it.”
According to the BCCA, most Level 1-4 training programs for apprenticeable trades are already operating at near or full capacity and waitlists can be a year long. Atchison explained once workers get connected with lucrative jobs, finding motivation to get a training seat, travel for training and pay for those costs to get across the finish line can be difficult.
While Atchison believes the Industry Training Authority (ITA) has done a good job promoting the trades and attracting new apprentices, he wants B.C. to closely watch how the new system performs and how dollars are being spent before spreading it to other trades.
“This must be measured and monitored to ensure the entire apprenticeship system is moving with market realities,” he said. “We all want to see more completions, but it will be a fine line between motivating those employees and employers to invest and turning them off entirely.”
Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, also praised the province for its goals but did not believe its actions address the worsening skilled trades shortage.
“The waitlist to get in training is too long,” said Gardner. “For some courses it’s a year, sometimes two years, some occasions three years. To complete your Red Seal can take eight to 10 years. That is an embarrassing statistic and represents a breathtaking breakdown in our trades training system.”
He urged the province to shift its focus to increasing training seats, providing innovative options for those outside the Lower Mainland and reducing red tape rather than adding an enforcement and compliance regime for apprenticeship ratios.
“An enforcement and compliance regime will add confusion, complexity and cost,” said Gardner. “It’s a mind-boggling amount of red tape. The result will be higher costs for construction. If the government was serious about trades training, they would invest in instructors not inspectors.”
Gardner added the private sector has already been coming up with training solutions that the province should be looking at.
“The government should focus on creating opportunities, ensuring flexibility and choice, and not putting in rigid requirements,” he said.
Andrew Mercier, parliamentary secretary for skills training and an MLA for Langley, sought to address the concerns. He noted the province recently announced $5 million in funding to increase training opportunities.
“Five million is a significant investment, so I would encourage all training providers to reach out and apply for funding. It can be used for seats with an emphasis on the 10 certification trades but also other high demand trades. It is also available for refresher courses,” he stated.
Mercier explained $30,000 could cover 16 seats of electrical trades level one training.
He added during consultation for the act, it was clear more flexible training options are needed, especially for those in remote and Indigenous communities.
“We have seen and heard about the success of community-based training and cohorts where culturally relevant supports are provided and that has to be a focus going forward,” said Mercier. The current ITA has made a lot of progress in the last four years on Indigenous initiatives and what this bill does is mandates SkilledTradesBC to promote the participation of Indigenous people in the system.”
He added Indigenous participation has gone from one to eight per cent in the last five years.
“That was part of what we heard loud and clear,” he said. “We need flexible training options. The trades training providers are at the forefront of that in terms of adapting to the new remote landscape and determining what can and can’t be done remotely.”
On apprenticeship ratios, Mercier pointed to the legislation which offers a “supervision ratio adjustment” companies can apply for that authorizes a greater number of apprentices to be supervised by one journeyperson
“That will be within the scope and power of SkilledTradesBC,” said Mercier. “It will be a common-sense approach.”
The province’s approach has received high praise from construction unions. Al Phillips, president of the BC Building Trades, stated the system will ensure jobsites have quality trained, experienced and professional tradespeople building vital infrastructure.
“With many critical projects on the horizon, Red Seal journeypersons and sponsored apprentices are the keys to ensuring this infrastructure will be built safely and competently,” said Phillips in a press release. “Learning a skilled trade does not just happen overnight. It takes years of classroom and on-the-job training, which can only be achieved through a formal apprenticeship program. Skilled trades certification and its enforcement will support this training and help build a better workforce for our province.”
- With files from the Canadian Press