March 24, 2010
Electrician’s union decries deskilling
An electricians union in Vancouver says changes to B.C.’s apprenticeship system have fragmented training and deskilled workers, while the open shop association argues unions are forcing workers to receive unnecessary training.
“Traditionally, when someone sponsored an apprentice, they entered a bona fide four year program,” said Rick Dowling, business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
“It was incumbent on the sponsor to make sure the apprentice had an opportunity to learn all facets of the trade.
“Apprentices were scheduled to go to school, once a year, for 10 weeks of study.
“They received the full scope of training to become a journeyman or electrician,” he said.
In the mid 1990s in B.C., trades were promoted by the Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission, through which apprentices were registered, tracked and scheduled for technical training and exams.
The commission was dissolved in 2003 and a new approach to training adopted, where trades were divided into smaller skill components.
Some view the approach as a positive for the industry.
“Basically, the craft unions are traditionalist in how people are trained and what they should be trained in, despite the fact the industry has changed dramatically since the introduction of the electrical trade,” said Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA).
“There are now a raft of contractors, who operate in specialized niche markets. They want to train their employees to fit this niche.”
He said it isn’t necessary for all electricians to obtain the full spectrum of skills through four years of training.
Hochstein said some electricians only need to know how to do small installations like a vacuum system or perform low voltage work, such as wiring door bells.
“These training needs are real and the apprenticeship needs of these firms should be met in the same way they are for high-voltage industrial work,” he said.
Hochstein said he believes the unions are forcing electrical workers to obtain a level of training that is not needed or necessary.
In sharp contrast, Dowling argued that the compartmentalized training ensures electricians are never fully trained.
“This is deskilling, which makes it no longer a compulsory trade,” he said.
“Compulsory used to mean anybody who installs wiring was a bona fide apprentice, who was working under the supervision of a journeyman electrician. The journeyman would sign off on work and make sure it was installed properly. He was responsible for making sure everything was up to code.”
According to Hochstein, the union approach puts too many limits on who can become an electrician and how contractors can staff jobs.
He said this is a problem, because the electrical trade is already heavily regulated.
The IBEW local 213 maintains the traditional approach to apprenticeships at its training centre, where 600 apprentices are currently being trained in all aspects of electrical work.
This includes in-class training that will allow them to obtain Red Seal certification.
Dowling said that workers without this level of training will get pigeonholed and have difficulties finding new employment.
He added that securing work in other provinces would also become more difficult.
Hochstein said the union concerns have nothing to do with safety, training or quality of work.
Instead, he said that he believes the unions are trying to impose their collective agreement and rules on the open shop sector.
“Union contractors are in cahoots with the unions because they see it as a competitiveness issue,” he said.
“They want to stick the cost and unproductive parts of their contract on the open shop sector.”
The IBEW also offers a 15-week pre-apprenticeship program that includes a 10-week job placement.
As part of the program, the union receives a report from the contractor that assesses the individual’s readiness to enter a full apprenticeship.
Hochstein said this program is just a way of getting around the rules.
“The IBEW is talking out of both sides of their mouth, because they have unskilled workers running around their sites,” he said.
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