Pulling plug on Industry Training Authority would be bad for B.C.’s employers, employees and economy

The critics’ call for compulsory trades is nothing more than an attempt to boost unionization wrapped in a disingenuous cloak of training

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 and doesn’t graduate enough certified workers. They say the ITA should be scrapped in favour of a return to what existed before it was created in 2004.

Wrong on all three claims.

First, completion rates. Before the ITA, between 38% and 42% of people who started training earned their certificate of qualifications. Under the ITA, completion has been between 37% and 43%. In other words, virtually identical. 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, 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 2000-01 and a 230% increase since the year the 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 the ITA’s critics 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 job sites and the ratio of apprentices to certified workers. It also imposes a police force of counsellors 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. than 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 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 toward unions – something the industry said doesn’t work.

Taken together, the critics’ training demands are a recipe for bigger problems and deeper shortages 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 ITA’s success and the ingenuity of companies in meeting their need for workers. Blowing up the ITA or returning to the old model of counsellors and compulsory trades would deliver nothing but failure for the industry, our economy and our province. •