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Workers construct new homes at a housing development in Pickering, Ont. on May 15, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy and a Substack newsletter.

Facing a labour crunch that would affect housing construction and transit infrastructure, Ontario has amended a program aimed at secondary school students, the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Under the new OYAP, as of Grade 11, students can now choose to stop their high school education to take on a full-time apprenticeship. The program runs two to five years, and those who finish their apprenticeships will be able to apply to graduate high school as mature students.

Ontario needs to build more homes. Estimates suggest the province needs 1.5 million new residences, yet housing starts are nowhere near the pace needed to get there any time soon. The labour shortage is a part of that problem, and Premier Doug Ford’s plan is in no small part a response to that fact.

But the province’s housing crisis has been a long time coming – decades in the making, in fact, as federal, provincial and municipal governments failed on the file repeatedly. The problem isn’t going to be solved overnight, nor will it be solved by a full-time skilled trades program alone.

The instrumentalization of education is also deeply disconcerting and cynical. Pressing students into trades just after Grade 10 may forestall their educational development and divert them from other endeavours as the province rushes them beyond a deeper education and out the door into the workforce. Also, are students ready, at 16, to lock in their career path?

There’s also reason to worry about whether the apprenticeship program will deliver results as advertised. A 2023 report by Statistics Canada found that among those who began a high-school apprenticeship in 2014, just 21 per cent finished on time, while 34 per cent finished within 1.5 times the length of the program. The same study found that those who completed apprenticeships outearned those with undergraduate degrees within two years of graduation. However, university graduates caught up to and surpassed their peers over the course of their lifetime.

Ontario Labour Minister David Piccini says “we need more young people to know university isn’t the only path to success in life.” He’s right about that. Students ought to be able to chart a course of their choosing, and a skilled trades job path and career ought to be respected as much as a university path. Ontario cannot function without skilled trades workers, and those who make the province run deserve recognition, respect and safe, stable, well-paying jobs.

Yet the Ford government’s attempt at a ham-fisted, central-planning-lite approach is risky for students, employers and the province’s economic needs alike. In March, Unifor, which represents roughly 50,000 of the workers the government says we need more of, sent a letter to Mr. Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and then-labour minister Monte McNaughton.

In the letter, Unifor warned that the government’s apprenticeship program “could water down apprenticeship requirements, lead to lower completion rates and put health and safety at risk.” It also argued that “reducing the education requirements will only reduce the certification rate” for apprentices. Another organization, People for Education, warns that the plan will limit student learning beyond the apprenticeship itself.

Rushing students into the labour market – into a particular segment of it – to address Ontario’s skilled trades gap is a hasty, short-term solution to a long-term problem. The province needs high-quality trades workers, just as it needs high-quality college and university graduates. But developing student and worker capacity takes time and care, particularly since education isn’t merely job training, but life training and citizen training, too.

Because of decades of poor, short-sighted education, labour, and housing planning by governments – Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic, federal, provincial, municipal – the Ford government is now in a hurry to set things right. But the problem can’t be solved in a hurry, and attempting to rush a solution risks poorer outcomes for students and the labour market. Such outcomes could produce weaker productivity and compromise student development, not to mention worker safety.

Mr. Ford ought to take a second look at his plan to push students through to skilled trades, both for the sake of the students and the province. While we should, as a society, encourage students to take up trades – and celebrate them when they do – we shouldn’t treat them as mere fodder for the labour market just because governments have failed to properly plan for economic needs. That way lies disaster.

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