September 4, 2015
By Derrick Penner
British Columbia has put a premium on directing young people into skilled trades training as a career path, but Comox Valley shop teacher Randy Grey says some of his students are still going elsewhere for the opportunity to get started.
“Quite a few do go to Alberta, because there is demand, and (to) Saskatchewan, because there are big projects there,” said Grey, president of the B.C. Technology Education Association. “Students willing to move and go away, they tend to pick up the jobs.”
At home in B.C., while the province signals it needs to fill some 125,000 positions in the skilled trades by 2022 as part of its Jobs B.C. plan, positions for first- and second-year apprentices are still a challenge to secure, he added.
Those jobs, which must be sponsored by an employer, are a crucial step in accreditation because within the trade-qualification system, 80 per cent of the process is on-the-job training and mentorship.
And apprentices need credit for a certain number of work hours to advance to the next level in a typical four-year training process.
Grey said it isn’t the third- and fourth-year apprentices who have difficulty getting employment, “but in the first couple of years where people need to have that mentorship,” Grey said. “That’s a holdback for a lot of youth.”
It isn’t just younger candidates who have a hard time getting their start in the trades, even as trades are being heavily promoted.
Aldergrove resident Bill Turnbull had a 12-year stint in long-haul trucking, but now, the 37-year-old single father wants to transition into a career as a heavy-duty mechanic rooted closer to home.
“I kind of grew up around people pulling wrenches,” Turnbull said. His father was a backyard mechanic and other mentors in his life also worked in trades.
Turnbull had a job with a mechanic’s shop earlier this year, which he hoped would lead to sponsorship for an apprenticeship position. However, the training he hoped for didn’t materialize, and he was laid off at the beginning of August.
Turnbull has applied for 15 to 20 jobs to jump-start his new career, but “more often than not, I don’t hear back at all.”
He has also looked into the foundation courses at technical schools but has run into waiting lists. And the courses themselves, at about nine months long, are difficult to contemplate when he’s trying to support three sons.
Turnbull would like to apply for the province’s wage-subsidy program, which is supposed to help unemployed people having a hard time finding a job due to a lack of skills or experience.
“It’s not easy for somebody who’s aging in the workforce,” he said. “I’m too old to be considered young, and too young to be considered old.”
B.C. has boosted the number of people entering the trades. For the first few months of its current fiscal year, starting April 1, the B.C. Industry Training Authority has counted a total of 38,410 people in some level of the system. (At the end of its last fiscal year the number stood at 43,370.)
For its last fiscal year that ended in March, the ITA, the Crown agency responsible or trades accreditation, graduated 7,500 qualified trades people, said its CEO Gary Herman.
And it has seen the number of apprentice employer sponsors climb to 10,039 this year, from 9,188 four years ago.
Regardless of the increase, Herman said only one in five employers who employ skilled tradespeople in B.C. sponsor apprentices, so “yes, we do need more employers to step up.”
The need is difficult to quantify, Herman said, because the apprenticeship system depends on demand for employees in healthy industries, and the recession of 2008/09 took a lot of momentum out of the economy with apprentices among its casualties.
However, Herman noted the workforce has grown older in the seven years since, and “now, it’s time for some of that succession planning.”
Construction is one sector where skilled tradespeople are in short supply, and Todd Craigen, vice-president of PCL West Coast Constructors, said the need is obvious when looking at his company’s projects.
“A person only has to walk around a job site to see,” he said. “You’ll find a few (tradespeople) in that 50s-plus demographic, a lot of people in the 20-something demographic, but you certainly don’t find a lot of people in their 30s and 40s.”
PCL is a big general contractor that typically hires sub-contractors for much of its work, but Craigen said in B.C. the company directly employs about 180 tradespeople to handle its own concrete forming work.
The proportion of apprentices is about 20 to 30 per cent, which Craigen said is maybe a bit higher than they would like. The company invests heavily in apprentices, he said, because they would eventually “be starved for craft labour” without them.
Craigen said he understands that for smaller companies, the investment in training can be more difficult.
An inexperienced apprentice can’t work as quickly as a ticketed journeyman, and as part of the training, a journeyman must devote time to training an apprentice. Craigen said this can make smaller companies reluctant to hire the new workers.
“They’re dealing with limited resources and don’t have the time and energy to invest,” he said, but PCL does try to promote hiring apprentices among the trade subcontractors it uses.
The province has responded to the lobbying of the construction sector with initiatives such as a web-based portal on its Work B.C. website to help promote training programs. The site makes it easier for employers to register sponsored positions and match them with candidates.
Government has pushed to make training apprentices a key part of the planning for the liquefied natural gas sector.
And the province took a bigger step this year by requiring that on public infrastructure projects worth $15 million or more, companies bidding on contracts worth at least $500,000 commit to employing apprentices on the jobs. That took effect July 1.
“When I looked at how you can have more employers step up, one thing you can do when you’re investing taxpayers’ dollars in a project is (demand) there be apprentices employed on those projects,” said Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs Tourism and Skills Training.
The measure didn’t go as far as requiring a certain number of apprentices. The B.C. Federation of Labour had lobbied for a 25-per-cent requirement. And the B.C. Construction Association had suggested the threshold be contracts worth at least $250,000.
However, Bond said the province didn’t want to set the contract amount too high to shut out businesses in more remote regions. On apprentice numbers, government also needs to take care that the requirement doesn’t inflate the cost of projects, but holds that 25-per-cent suggestion as an “aspirational goal.”
“(Premier Christy Clark) made it clear, she wants to make sure it doesn’t impact the cost or timing of public projects,” she said.
Craigen said “government is pushing where it can,” but more companies need to make the investment in apprentice training.
The construction sector is in a “pretty robust” phase, which is potentially helpful but also poses a challenge, according to Manley McLachlan, president of the B.C. Construction Association.
“Right now, there are more people working in the industry than there have been for many, many years,” McLachlan said. “(But) we’ve got a whole bunch who will retire soon, and those retirements will impact companies’ ability to train, because the people retiring are generally the tradesmen who do the training on the job.”
Generally, McLachlan said 35 per cent of skilled trades employers hire 80 per cent of the apprentices. He estimated that if the ratio of employers taking apprentices doubled, it would fill the gap.
“The language I use is that companies need to take accountability for their workforce,” McLachlan said. “That means invest in it. Rather than lay off that first-year apprentice because work has slowed down.”
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council, estimates the lack of placements leads a lot of hopeful candidates to drop out of trades training.
The council is an umbrella group for the unionized trades sector, and Sigurdson said its member unions have a solid record in their training programs, graduating more than 80 per cent of the candidates they take on.
However, he said union programs typically don’t take new students unless they have sponsors for them, and a lot of the classes now have long waiting lists.
On average, however, Industry Training Authority statistics show the provincewide apprenticeship completion rate is only about 33 per cent.
“Without having a job to go to after you’ve finished your theoretical first year, you have a tremendous drop-off rate because of frustration,” Sigurdson said.
There is a counter argument in the non-union sector that the apprenticeship-training system needs to do more to attract employers, said Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Business Association of B.C.
“The formal apprenticeship system has to be more flexible (and) more current,” Hochstein said.
As an example, he said the existing requirement for apprentices to take six- to eight-week blocks of technical schooling per year often puts “a big hole in a contractor’s workforce,” an expensive proposition for both the company and trainee.
“There’s got to be a more flexible way to take technical training without interfering with their day job and income flow,” Hochstein said.
And just because employers aren’t participating in the registered apprenticeship program doesn’t mean they aren’t training employees outside of it, he added.
Bond said finding ways to deliver the technical, classroom element of apprenticeship training closer to candidates’ home communities is another goal of government.
“The next step is we need to look at innovations in training,” Bond said. “Why are some employers reluctant to take part?”
In the meantime, Bond said her ministry is working to create a database to collect information on whether its public-project requirement comes with a cost and to figure out what workforce needs would be for a potential LNG industry, which would also help put a number on apprentices who will need sponsorship.
There is also the element of supply and demand.
“The other thing, is, there needs to be more work opportunities,” Hochstein said. “Employers will employ as many apprentices as required for the (projects they have).”
If a major LNG project materializes, Hochstein said that would present plenty of opportunities to hire apprentices.
“But until those (projects) are real, we ain’t training,” Hochstein said.
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