Increasing the number of skilled trades workers has quickly become a top priority for Canadian governments and business. Yet young people who try to enroll in trades programs often face long waiting lists because funding for that training hasn’t grown along with the need.
Community colleges and polytechnics are crucial to preparing skilled trades workers, and must receive a larger portion of the postsecondary funding pie. And that’s just the first step.
For students who get past the waiting lists, the next challenge is finding an apprenticeship position. Just last week, a report prepared for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives called for governments, educators and employers to “work together to sharply increase both the number and range of apprenticeships for young Canadians.”
Many employers are reluctant to take on apprentices because of the administrative costs and perceived reduction in mentor productivity. But Canadian Apprenticeship Forum surveys show that having a helper makes journey-persons more productive, not less.
Another major obstacle for students is the disconnected 13 provincial and territorial apprenticeship jurisdictions, which means that apprentices who manage to find work in another province or territory may be barred from counting their on-the job-training hours toward journey-person status.
Canada lags other developed countries in fostering apprenticeships in skilled trades.
In Germany, for example, more than half of postsecondary students enter apprenticeship programs, while apprentices make up only 2 per cent of Canada’s work force.
In February, federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney led a delegation to Germany to examine the skilled trades system that lies at the heart of that country’s stunning economic success. In stark contrast to Canada’s balkanized trades training, Mr. Kenney found that a positive partnership among educational institutions and employers, together with state and federal governments, was key to Germany’s success.
Canadians are starting to see signs of progress, however.
The premiers of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan recently announced that, as of next September, apprentices will be able to move between those three provinces without having to restart their training. This is a welcome move, but what is really needed is complete harmonization of apprenticeship programs from coast to coast.
Not surprisingly, the provinces facing the most acute skilled labour shortages feel the strongest sense of urgency.
In British Columbia, it is projected that some 400,000 skilled trades workers will be needed by 2020 for the liquefied natural gas, natural gas, mining and shipbuilding industries. To meet that goal, Premier Christy Clark has pledged to “re-engineer the education system from high school to postsecondary.”
A recent report commissioned by the B.C. government recommends that at least 25 per cent of trades jobs on public infrastructure and LNG projects be filled by apprentices. The federal government could provide a huge national boost by implementing a similar requirement for its $14-billion New Building Canada Fund for public infrastructure.
The fact that a healthy pool of skilled workers is a major factor in attracting economic development is well established in the southern United States.
When Yokohama Tire Corp. was looking for a place to build a 2,000-employee tire plant, Mississippi won the investment by promising a new community college program to train workers in the specific skills needed.
Georgia clinched a deal for a new 1,400-employee Caterpillar plant by financing a similar industry-specific college program to train workers. Arkansas recently unveiled a plant-specific skills development program called Fast Track.
In January, Florida announced a training program to help attract science and technology investments.
The trend moved north last month when Wisconsin announced funding for a labour program, Fast Forward, which includes customized skills training.
For far too long, governments have competed for economic investments by providing cash subsidies to companies. But companies that need subsidies tend to fail, leaving abandoned plants and unemployed workers.
A better way to lure investments, especially in the resource and manufacturing sectors, is to develop a highly skilled labour force. As Premier Clark noted, “One of the terrific legacies of [training people for] these projects will be a highly skilled, highly qualified work force … that will attract more investment.”
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.
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