BC’s trades training system: missing in action

With close to 540 delegates drawn from all provinces and territories in Canada, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF) met in Saint John's Newfoundland and Labrador last week to consider the road ahead for trades training in Canada. The delegates included representatives from industry, the labour movement, post-secondary education trades instructors, Directors of Apprenticeship, and both federal and provincial governments.

The CAF Conference is especially important to me because, for the last six years, I have been a director on the CAF Board and have served as the elected labour co-chair of CAF conferences. It is an honour in many respects, but also an opportunity to see just how different BC's approach to trades training has been.

The event is part of a biennial gathering at which stakeholders consider some of the challenges facing trades training in Canada. It also provides a forum for discussing some of the important solutions that various provinces and territories are implementing to deal with these challenges. What became increasingly evident to those in attendance was that BC's Industry Training Authority (ITA) is out of step with the rest of Canada when it comes to designing and adopting sensible solutions to some trades training challenges.

One of the more telling debates had to do with compulsory trades. Under the ITA, BC abandoned the concept of compulsory trades when the provincial government scrapped the Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission (ITAC) in 2002. At the time, many involved in trades training and apprenticeship saw the change as a step backward, warning that without some form of compulsory trades, quality supervision of apprentices would fail, a move that would have serious consequences for many different industries. At the CAF conference, delegates heard how most provinces have gone in a different direction, one in which compulsory trades play a far more critical role in the overall trades training scheme.

Even in more conservative jurisdictions, compulsory trades are alive and well. In Alberta, for example, compulsory trades designations are a central part of their trades training system. So too is a comprehensive system of government-supported apprenticeship counsellors whose main function is to ensure that apprentices complete their classroom training within a specified time period. Under the Alberta model, the counsellor has the capacity and authority to work with both the apprentice and the employer to ensure that the classroom training is fulfilled and the apprenticeship is completed.

BC, unfortunately, is at the other end of the spectrum. ITA's laissez faire approach leaves it up to the individual apprentice to navigate through course registration as well as negotiate with their employer to get time off for that training. As a result, apprentice completion rates have not kept pace with the needs. Moreover, without apprenticeship counsellors in place, public post-secondary institutions are forced to deal with a chaotic registration process in which individual apprentices will often register at multiple institutions in the hope of getting access to one of their required courses. The ensuing chaos creates funding and administrative headaches for public institutions, something that could be easily avoided if ITA took a different approach.

The conference also highlighted women in non-traditional trades-or, frankly, the lack thereof. It became obvious that there are solutions out there (for one, providing day care and other support for women enrolled in trades training or working as apprentices), but BC appears to be lagging behind the more sensible measures we see in provinces like Ontario and Quebec.

Another important theme that was emphasized by delegates is the need to strengthen the support for trades training, especially during tough economic times. Every province is becoming very aware of the impending pinch of a skills shortage. Sensible strategies mean putting more funding into trades training when governments are stretched to find that funding. In BC, however, that message has not come through as ITA begins to tighten the funding it provides to the major trades training organizations in the province, our public post-secondary institutions.

CAF also celebrated the fiftieth year of the Red Seal, the national standard that allows full mobility in over forty different trades across Canada. The recurring message throughout that celebration was the need to strengthen trades training in every province. It's too bad that BC's track record on trades training since 2002 has failed to keep pace with the commitments we see in other provinces. Hopefully, the momentum created at this year's CAF Conference will begin to change that.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.