Industry, government grapple with trades training reform

Unclear how compulsory construction trades certification system might be restored in B.C.

Brynn Bourke, interim executive director of BC Building Trades: “We can’t afford not to do this” | Submitted

The restoration of compulsory trades training appears to have strong public support in British Columbia.

Eight in 10 British Columbians are in favour of requiring tradespeople to obtain a specified level of training before working in a skilled trade, according to a recent Research Co. poll commissioned by the BC Building Trades (BCBT).

B.C. is the only province without a compulsory trades system. Supporters say that restoring such a system, which was in place in B.C. until 2003, will help build the province’s capacity to meet its skilled-trades labour shortage. Others question whether mandatory education and training requirements are enough to meet chronic skills supply challenges.

“I don’t think 80% of British Columbians have any idea what compulsory trades is,” said Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA). “It’s a very complicated discussion. There is a shortage of skilled workers in construction – there’s no question about that, and that is the No. 1 challenge facing contractors.”

But according to Gardner, restoring compulsory trades may bring unintended consequences that could exacerbate that shortage in the short term.

“There just simply aren’t enough spaces in the training institutions to handle a deluge of construction workers all of a sudden registering,” he said.

It remains unclear how and when the B.C. government might re-introduce compulsory trades. Minister of Labour Harry Bains, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training Anne Kang and Parliamentary Secretary for Skills Training Andrew Mercier – former BCBT executive director – are expected to make progress on the issue over the next term, according to their mandate letters.

B.C. previously had a dozen compulsory trades – nine in construction and three in automotive. Brynn Bourke, BCBT interim executive director, believes restoring required training in these trades would be a good starting point. Both the BCBT and the BC Federation of Labour want the province to establish a system for assessing whether other additional trades should require training or certification.

“We can’t afford not to do this. There’s a strong business case for why we would want to return to compulsory trades,” said Bourke. “It’s going to help us to build capacity in B.C. to meet upcoming skilled trade shortages. It’s going to motivate employers to indenture more apprentices into the system.”

A 2018 BC Chamber of Commerce analysis noted that the absence of compulsory trade certification can decrease apprentice motivation to complete training. The chamber found that while overall completion rates rose after 2003 following a spike in training registrations, the ratio of completion rates to registrations fell over time. In the four years before 2004, completion rates averaged 46% using this measurement. From 2004 to 2014, they averaged 42%, while national completion rates rose to 48% from 47%.

“There’s a whole generation of tradespeople who wanted that credential, tried to get that credential, tried to get that full scope of training, and they didn’t have those opportunities,” Bourke said.

Proponents of the system argue that mandatory training requirements can help ensure worker safety and quality of work.

“What we need is to ensure that the people who are working in construction are properly trained,” said John Calvert, a political scientist who specializes in public policy and sits on the board of Simon Fraser University’s Morgan Centre for Labour Studies.

This includes training around how to “green” the construction trades and reduce the environmental footprint of buildings, a large part of which will involve retrofitting.

“To be able to go into a building and understand a bit about how it was constructed, and the best ways to reduce its carbon footprint, and do that economically, requires a broad set of skills,” he said.

“To have a workforce that can do that kind of retrofitting to meet high environmental standards should be one of our fundamental goals.… You cannot do that with an unskilled workforce.”

While studies suggest that the removal of compulsory trades hurt overall apprenticeship completion rates, some question whether reinstating such a system will force the market to correct course.

Gardner would like the province to create more trades training seats in technical schools and colleges.

Online delivery of curriculum, where appropriate, could help provide prospective trainees with the flexibility they need to complete their education, he says.

Calvert also believes B.C. should take a broader view in how it approaches trades training, and that compulsory mandates are just part of the solution.

Carmina Tupe, director of government relations for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of British Columbia, says the association is watching the issue unfold and is keen to be involved in how the provincial government approaches the restoration of a compulsory trades system in B.C.

Few details have been made available to date on what that process will look like, she said.

“I think there needs to be greater dialogue and education on the benefits of working for skilled trades,” she said, adding that trades aren’t often viewed as viable career paths, despite how in-demand certain trades are.

“I think the outcome that we’d be looking for is just to make sure we don’t prohibit more people from entering the trades, and that the process isn’t burdensome.”