Premier John Horgan aims to put an end to B.C.’s long-running experiment in delivery of trade apprenticeship training, ordering the labour and advanced education ministers to “restore the compulsory trades system” during the NDP government’s four-year mandate.
Horgan’s objective is the same as his often-stated goal for union-only public construction: to increase the number of apprentices and especially those who go on to complete their trade tickets. Both efforts are backed by the B.C. and Yukon Building Trades Council and the B.C. Federation of Labour, which called for a return to compulsory trades training when Horgan’s NDP government was elected in 2017.
With a majority mandate, stage one is to expand public construction projects that are restricted to 19 mostly U.S.-based international unions. The Pattullo bridge replacement serves as the model for a deal that requires every worker to join an approved union within 30 days. The 330-page “Community Benefits Agreement” (CBA) with the unions requires 25 per cent of jobs for apprentices and attempts to restrict hiring to people who live within 100 km of the project.
Stage two is to remake the Industry Training Authority, the Crown corporation set up in 2003 by Gordon Campbell’s B.C. Liberal government to manage apprenticeships and provide more accessible training for in-demand skills.
Horgan’s new mandate letters to returning Labour Minister Harry Bains and newly appointed Advanced Education Minister Ann Kang say compulsory trades are “to improve safety and give more workers a path to apprenticeship completion.” Critics point out that the vast majority of traditional trades work now is with non-union employers and those with more flexible workplaces.
“Given that fully 85 per cent of the nearly 250,000 men and women who work in construction in B.C. work for open-shop (non-building trades) companies, the government must ensure there is a level playing field when it comes to issuing contracts for taxpayer-funded infrastructure,” says Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Business Association. “Giving preferential status to selected unions is simply not fair, and the record on the projects tendered to date under CBAs is abundantly clear. Taxpayers are paying about 30 per cent more and getting less.”
In a 2017 consultant’s report, the B.C. Federation of Labour argued that B.C.’s industry training system is unlike any other province. The report described it as the “modularization of trades training: instead of covering the full scope of a large, varied trade like carpentry, an individual could acquire certification as a former, framer, and finishing carpenter through a series of progressive credentials” or modules.
The B.C. Fed argues this deregulation shifted apprenticeships in favour of employers and their immediate skill needs, and it wants authority over apprenticeships shifted back to its member unions. Gardner’s ICBA says the B.C. Building Trades’ apprenticeships represent only 15 per cent of the total, and compulsory trades are a further restriction on new entry.
The Industry Training Authority’s efforts at innovation include a series of pilot projects launched at post-secondary institutions in 2016, not dependent on apprenticeships with employer sponsors. They included 75 spaces at North Island College for “foundation programs: electrician, heavy equipment operator, welder, aircraft structural technician and carpenter.”
Camosun College was funded for two programs, 10 training spaces for piping trades and eight for level three professional cooks. Okanagan College received seven spaces for level one electrician training, and Vancouver Community College was accepted for six automotive glass technician spots. Vancouver Island University received 12 spaces for level one baker training.