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November 21, 2012

Trades training problems overstated

View from the Board | Philip Hochstein

Skill shortages are making headlines these days. Construction's outlook is positive and there's a growing demand for labour. But, there are troubling signs that people may be hiding behind the smokescreen of calls for changes to our training system to push other agendas.

The current training model – the Industry Training Authority (ITA) – is under attack.

Critics claim it has failed because of so-called low completion rates, doesn’t graduate enough certified workers and the ITA should be scrapped in favour of a return to what existed before it was created in 2004.

They are wrong on all three claims.

First, completion rates: Before the ITA, between 38 per cent and 42 per cent of people, who started training, earned their certificate of qualifications. Under the ITA completion has been between 37 per cent and 43 per cent.

In other words, it’s virtually identical.

Philip Hochstein

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View from the Board

Philip Hochstein

How could a return to the old model increase numbers when it failed to do so in the past?

As well, non-completion doesn’t mean the person has left construction. In fact, many apprentices abandon training when they land well-paying jobs that fit their skills. Their knowledge continues to build the industry.

Second, actual number of graduates:

Last year, the ITA issued 8,759 certificates of qualification. That was up from 7,318 the year before – and was the highest in history. It was more than double the number issued under the old system in 2000-2001, and a 230 per cent increase since the year ITA started.

These two false claims make it clear that the third claim of a need for change is also false.

Set aside that the solutions being offered are for a problem that doesn’t exist. Just what are they proposing?

They want a much more costly system with more people to administer and enforce training and standards – something that delivered fewer graduates and similar completion rates. That is classic less for more.

The critics also want to impose compulsory trades – legislation dictating the number of certified workers required on jobsites and the ratio of apprentices to certified workers. It also imposes a police force of counselors to enforce these rules.

Compulsory trades also impose old-style craft union workplace rules about who can do what kind of work.

This takes away the flexibility that has seen the construction sector grow and thrive over the past decade.

These workplace rules have been rejected by both the marketplace (the building trades do less of the work in B.C. that at any time in the past) and by the workers themselves (union membership is falling).

The critics’ call for compulsory trades is nothing more than an attempt to boost unionization wrapped in a disingenuous cloak of training. It’s no wonder that the main proponents of these changes are the old-style building trade unions. They want to leverage the heavy hand of government to force the industry towards unions – something the industry said doesn’t work.

Taken together, the critics’ training demands are a recipe for bigger problems and deeper shortages – one that will push construction costs even higher.

Perhaps the solution they’re chasing is driving up construction costs to the point that investments and jobs stop and there is no more need for new workers.

People are investing in construction and there’s going to be a demand for skilled workers.

We need to keep building on the success of the Industry Training Authority and the ingenuity of companies in meeting their need for workers. Blowing up the ITA or returning to the old model of counselors and compulsory trades would deliver nothing but failure for the industry, our economy and our province.

Philip Hochstein is the president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of British Columbia. Phil is also a member of the Journal of Commerce Editorial Advisory Board. Send comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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