By Gwyn Morgan
BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan’s recent skills-training agreement must be emulated coast to coast
Increasing the supply of skilled tradespersons has rapidly become the country’s most critical educational need, yet barriers to training remain virtually unchanged.
Applicants often face long waiting lists because funding hasn’t grown in concert with that need, while huge sums are being spent turning out post-secondary graduates with skills that are neither useful to their own future nor that of our country.
To do their crucial job, Canada’s polytechnics and trades-training community colleges must receive a substantially larger portion of the funding pie.
For students who get past the waiting lists, the next challenge is finding an inter-semester apprenticeship position. Many employers are reluctant to take on apprentices due to a perceived reduction in mentor productivity, but surveys show that having a helper makes journey-persons more productive, not less.
Unfortunately, the disconnected 13 province and territory jurisdictional structure means that apprentices who manage to find work in another province or territory may be barred from counting their on-the job-training hours towards journey-person status.
A just-released report from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives calls for governments, educators and employers to “work together to sharply increase both the number and range of apprenticeships for young Canadians”.
And now that the shortage of trades has shot to the top of the skills-gap agenda, we’re starting to see signs of progress. The Premiers of B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan recently announced that apprentices will be able to move among their three provinces without having to re-start their training. These are positive steps, but what’s needed is complete harmonization of apprenticeship programs from coast to coast.
OECD data shows that countries with the highest rates of apprenticeship also have the lowest youth unemployment. In Germany, more than half of post-secondary students enter apprenticeship programs, while apprentices make up just 2 per cent of Canada’s workforce.
In February, Labour Minster Jason Kenny led a delegation to examine the skilled trades system that lies at the heart of the Germany’s stunning economic success. In stark contrast to Canada’s balkanized trades training environment, Kenny found that a positive partnership among educational institutions and employers, together with state and federal governments, was key to Germany’s success.
Not surprisingly, the provinces facing the most acute skilled labour shortages feel the strongest sense of urgency. In B.C., Liquefied Natural Gas, mining and shipbuilding are projected to require some 400,000 skilled tradespersons by 2020. To meet that goal, Premier Christy Clark has pledged to “re-engineer the education system from high school to post-secondary”. And a recent report commissioned by her government recommends that at least 25 per cent of trade’s 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 recently announced $14 billion New Building Canada Fund.
Recognition that skills availability is a major factor in attracting economic development is well established in the Southern United States. When Yokohama was looking for a place to build a new 2,000 employee tire plant, the state of Mississippi won the investment by promising a new community college program that would train workers in the specific skills needed.
Georgia clinched a deal for a new 1,400 employee Caterpillar plant by funding a similar industry-specific college program that, in the words of Caterpillar spokesperson Lisa Millar, “. . . provides comprehensive, customized training to expanding and new businesses in the state.” Arkansas recently emulated Mississippi and Georgia by funding a new plant-specific skills development program called Fast Track. And 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 workforce development that includes customized training for business.
For far too long, governments have competed for investment by providing cash subsidies to corporations. But, sooner or later, businesses needing subsidies almost always fail, leaving bleak, abandoned plant sites. By contrast, as Premier Clark recently noted: “One of the terrific legacies of (training people for) these projects will be a highly skilled, highly qualified workforce . . . that will attract more investment”.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader who has been a director of five global corporations.