QP Briefing. Mixed opinions on proposed changes to apprenticeship system

By Sneh Duggal

The government’s proposed changes to the province’s apprenticeship system are drawing mixed reaction from legislators and stakeholders, with supporters saying they will help reduce regulatory hurdles and boost apprenticeship opportunities and opponents voicing concerns over safety and reduced training.

The Progressive Conservative government announced on Oct. 23 plans to dismantle several of the labour law changes that the previous Liberal government implemented. As part of that announcement, the PC government also said it was looking to make changes to Ontario’s apprenticeship system and that it planned to “wind down” the Ontario College of Trades — a regulatory body for the skilled trades. The changes were outlined in a piece of legislation the government tabled last week called the Making Ontario Open for Business Act.

Speaking from the factory floor of Leland Industries Inc. in Scarborough, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Merrilee Fullerton spoke of the “vibrant opportunities” in the skilled trades. The problem, she said, is that “employers can’t find apprentices and apprentices can’t find jobs.”

“Yet despite this labour shortage, we have young people who want careers in the skilled trades, who are actually forced to leave this province to find work,” Fullerton said. “They deserve a shot at a job here in Ontario.”

She said this all points toward a “broken” apprenticeship system.

One of the government’s proposed changes is to set the ratio of journeypersons to apprentices at one-to-one for trades that are subject to ratios.

A journeyperson, as defined by Statistics Canada, is a “qualified and skilled person in a trade and is entitled to the wages and benefits associated with that trade.” A journeyperson can also be a mentor to apprentices.

“Historically, ratios were established in certain trades in Ontario by the government to ensure the safety and quality of on-the-job training of apprentices and as a way to provide for the future skilled labour needs of industry,” according to the Ontario College of Trades website.

Ratios can vary according to the trade.

When speaking about the reason for the proposed change, Fullerton said the current ratios are “amongst the highest in the country and are a major deterrent for employers looking to hire apprentices.”

She added that they limit the number of apprentices an employer can train.

The Ontario Skilled Trades Alliance lauded the proposal, saying in a statement that reducing the journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios would allow more businesses to hire apprentices.

Several stakeholders, however, cited concerns.

Interim Liberal Leader John Fraser said the proposed one-to-one ratio could put people at risk, especially those in dangerous professions such as elevator repairers or electricians. The risks, he said, have to do with worker safety and ensuring apprentices get proper training. Meanwhile, New Democrat MPP Guy Bourgouin, a former tradesman, said his concern is that the proposed changes will “lower” the standards of trades work in Ontario and result in companies circumventing the one-to-one ratio and hiring more “apprentices as cheap labour to the detriment of those who successfully qualified for … journeypersons.”

Tom Sigurdson, executive director of BC Building Trades, said Ontario is “going down a slippery slope.” He supports a ratio of multiple journeypersons to an apprentice because it means “learning the craft from a variety of different practitioners.”

He said a one-to-one ratio means an apprentice learning what one journeyperson knows, but not what four journeypersons, for example, know. For dangerous industries, such as construction, if an apprenticeship has one journeyperson they’re learning from, and that person has more of a “casual attitude about a piece of safety equipment or cleanliness … the apprentice is going to unfortunately have some exposure to that.”

John Breslin, director of skilled trades for private-sector union Unifor, said they are still trying to determine what the impacts of the proposed changes would be. But he said he disagrees with the one-to-one ratio and is concerned that apprentices might not get the training and knowledge they need to complete their apprenticeships.

“We’ve looked at jurisdictions across Canada and those were not issues anywhere,” Fullerton told QP Briefing.“There is no empirical evidence from the jurisdictions that we considered and looked at across Canada in terms of the safety issues or quality; the quality and the safety were all maintained with the … one-to-one ratios, so we did consider that in our thinking.”

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce also supported the move, with president Rocco Rossi saying in a statement that it would help “create more opportunities within the skilled trades.”

And Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner sided with the government on the one-to-one ratio proposal.

He said businesses cannot provide enough apprenticeships to support new young workers coming into the workforce and workers are having challenges accessing apprenticeships.

“I do think that we need to get Ontario’s apprenticeship ratios more in line with other provinces,” Schreiner said.

But Schreiner went on to say that his concern lies with the government “throwing the baby out with the bathwater on the College of Trades.”

The government has argued that this would “reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, and … modernize apprenticeship in Ontario.”

Stephanie Rea, director of communications for Fullerton, wrote in an emailed statement that the government plans to “develop a replacement model for the regulation of the skilled trades and apprenticeship system in early 2019.”

A government press release said that the minister would be able to “take charge and control” of the college’s board of governors.

“Any related costs associated with the modernization of the apprenticeship system will be determined during the transition period,” Rea said.

Schreiner said he thinks it would be better to make changes to the Ontario College of Trades rather than get rid of it, “because we want to make the trades more respected” in society.

Many trades jobs pay well and are essential to the economy, he said, adding that the college can play a role in highlighting the importance of these professions.

He said one thing that could be changed, however, is to have the college’s fees reflect the earning potential of the different professions.

“Apprenticeship training in this province is awash in red tape,” said Linda Franklin, the president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, in an Oct. 23 statement. She said the proposed axing of the Ontario College of Trades was “an important step to help close the skills gap that is hurting businesses and industries throughout the province.”

Franklin later outlined in an emailed statement that Ontario colleges are “eager to work with the government to streamline the application process” for apprentices.

“We can also use our close connections with business leaders to match more apprentices with willing employers.”

Another change in the proposed legislation would be to put a “moratorium on trade classifications and reclassifications.”

During this moratorium, there would be no classification or reclassification of voluntary or compulsory trades, said Rea.

Currently, there are 23 trades that are considered compulsory, meaning that a person practicing in one of those trades has to meet certain requirements such as being a licensed journeyperson or a registered apprentice. The trades that aren’t classified as compulsory are considered voluntary trades. According to the Ontario College of Trades website, “certification is offered in some voluntary trades, but is not a requirement to practice in the trade.”

“Trade classification and reclassification is overly burdensome for both businesses and tradespeople,” said Rea. She said that the moratorium would allow Fullerton’s ministry to “work with industry and other stakeholders about the best process for trade classifications.”

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