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BC's Job Trainers in Trouble

As demand for skilled tradespeople grows, so does pressure on the Industry Training Authority to fill the gap. First of two.

By Katie Hyslop 2 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop writes about education and economic sustainability issues for Tyee Solutions Society. This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI). TCI neither influences nor endorses the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

If you believe the BC Jobs plan, we're on the cusp of an economic boom in the province's natural resource and shipbuilding sectors. That's the good news.

The bad? We're also facing a skills shortage that means thousands to tens of thousands of British Columbians could miss out on the bonanza. Consider these three points:

-- The provincial Labour Market Outlook predicts openings for 153,000 skilled trades people over the next decade -- tens of thousands more than the current supply of workers.

-- The Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation says there will be more than 104,600 skilled trade jobs opening up over the next decade; it also anticipates we'll be short 2,340 trades people by 2020.

-- The British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council predicts a shortfall of 20,000 trades people that same year.

Whatever statistic you pick, the future looks bright for trades people in British Columbia. An increase in available jobs in the province has a chance of putting a serious dent in B.C.'s unemployment rate. And with skilled trades earning well above minimum wage, more jobs could reduce the province's high rate of individual and family poverty.

But first British Columbians need the skills to get those jobs. That's put a new spotlight on the Industry Training Authority's (ITA) role of facilitating the qualification of future electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other trades. The skilled labour shortage that government and industry predicts would be even larger without the ITA, a provincial agency that funds and monitors all trades training and apprenticeships in B.C. On the other hand, if British Columbians are going to be available to fill all of those available jobs, we also need the ITA to do that.

Since its inception in 2004 however, the agency has faced criticism for being disorganized and out of touch. The complaints have come from every quarter: from unions, industry, politicians, and even the province's Auditor-General.

The unhappy evidence is in the statistics: B.C.'s apprenticeship completion rate has hovered around 40 per cent for years, while the national average is 50 per cent, and Alberta's rate sits at 78 per cent. (However, those statistics are debated in the province; see part two of this series tomorrow for more.)

"The Authority, as an industry trainer, has been doing just-in-time training. You can go in, get a component of training that's required for a job that's immediately required somewhere," says Tom Sigurdson, executive director of The British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, a union umbrella organization. But the trade-off for such last-minute filling of skill gaps, Sigurdson says, is that "there's no comprehensive training."

"The ITA as it's currently structured is not providing British Columbia with the services that are necessary to get us through the skill shortage," the union executive adds.

Since a predecessor agency, the Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission (ITAC) (see sidebar), was replaced by the ITA in 2004, critics like Sigurdson have charged that apprentices are left to figure out a complex industry on their own. Instead of the closer participation from industry that was anticipated when the new agency was launched, they say, not enough employers fund training or take on apprentices.

Today we'll take a look at some of the criticisms that have been leveled at the ITA. Tomorrow we'll examine some solutions being suggested to help meet demands for skilled labour while improving lives for British Columbians.

Glass labyrinth

When Ryan Paton started his apprenticeship in 2007, he knew he was one of the first students to try out the ITA's new glazing program. He didn't know it would be so frustrating. Before Paton started, glazing apprentices were divided into Levels 1, 2, and 3 to earn their Red Seal -- the highest qualification in trades nation-wide. Then the ITA changed to a system of modules: A through G.

Every student had to take Module A, but you chose other modules based on what you wanted to learn: commercial versus residential glazing, doors versus auto glass, and so on.

Paton had expected to become a skilled glazier with knowledge in many areas of glasswork. What the ITA was offering instead, he felt, was a chance to become a technician.

"The ethical problem," he explains, "was it was trying to detract from having skilled, ticketed tradesmen (who) knew everything about their field and could make informed decisions about what they were doing on the job site and build safer, better buildings.

"You wouldn't necessarily have to take all of (the modules), and you wouldn't necessarily have to get a Red Seal at the end of it, you could become a storefront technician or a curtain wall technician and you'd only know that little bit."

Curriculum for the new program was taken directly from installation manuals produced by a commercial glass and aluminum supplier, Kawneer. Nor was the revised curriculum completed when it was delivered to Paton and his classmates. He credits his instructor at the Finishing Trades Institute of British Columbia for supplementing the official course with materials from the international glaziers union.

But he says he could tell the program was disorganized. Halfway through his glaziers' training, the ITA switched back to the levels system, although they kept the new curriculum. This meant Paton had to spend four years apprenticing instead of three.

In addition, because most other trades programs still operated on levels, not modules, many glazing students were deemed ineligible for apprenticeship incentive grants. Paton only received $3,000 of the $4,000 in grant money he had expected.

"If I wasn't as driven to get a good education, asking lots of questions, I don't think I would have gotten as much out of (my apprenticeship) as I did," says Paton, who now has his Red Seal.

Give more responsibility to ITOs

A major difference between the ITA and its predecessor, the ITAC, is the major role industry was supposed to play. Under ITAC, government, colleges, labourers, and industry all had an equal say, and equal power to veto any decisions. The ITA was supposed to be different, more focused on the needs of industries that wish to employ skilled trades.

Industry plays its role in the ITA through seven not-for-profit Industry Training Organizations (ITO). Overseen by industry representatives, each advisory ITO is responsible for ensuring adequate training for a certain trades sector in the province. Russ Robertson, CEO of the transportation trades ITO, explains how he sees his role: "[We] understand what ITA is looking for, and we're able to facilitate industry to identify the range of solutions to resolve some of the shortage of skilled labour, or upgrade the quality of the product coming out of the system, or look at do we have too many schools offering the courses, (or) looking at the quality of instruction in those schools."

Other ITOs represent the automotive, tourism and hospitality, construction, horticulture, resource and residential construction industries. Provincial funding for the ITA -- $94.4 million annually for the past six years -- also supports the ITOs. Funding levels differ for each. In 2011 the highest funding was for the Construction Industry Training Organization (CITO), which received $1.9 million; the lowest was $265,500 for HortEducationBC, the horticultural ITO. In all, the ITA spent $5.8 million on ITOs last year -- $5.2 million more than it spent in 2005/06.

But their responsibilities are ambiguous. Robertson points to the ITA's "Shareholders' Letter of Expectations," in which the ministry responsible for the ITA -- in its role as its "shareholders", AKA British Columbians -- details its expectations of the Crown agency for the coming fiscal year. The 2007/'08 letter says the industry panels will work with the ITA to "develop policies and standards to support the delivery of training programs... qualification assessments, examinations, and credentials for programs administered by the Authority." But in the 2011/'12 letter the ITOs are instead tasked with implementing "an action plan to further expand employer participation in industry training including sponsorship of apprentices."

Robertson says this signals a "major shift in ITA," from involving ITOs in developing new, market-relevant curriculum, focusing solely on getting employers to hire apprentices. "There's no longer the emphasis on maintaining up-to-date or aligned industry programs, updating the program standards, no reference to the ITOs going out and promoting or marketing the youth programs, and trying to attract more people into these occupations in each of the ITOs' area of responsibility," he told The Tyee Solutions Society.

Confusion about the groups' contribution is nothing new. A 2008 Auditor-General's audit criticized the training authority for not having a clear idea of the advisory bodies' roles or funding needs. Auditor-General John Doyle said ITOs should either be treated as employees of the ITA or its contractors, but that the ITA needed to decide which role they should play. Kevin Evans, CEO of the ITA, says that problem has been fixed. Each of the ITOs signed Enterprise Partnership Agreements in 2009. But instead of working with the ITA as more-or-less equal voices, the ITOs were now paid to deliver specified services. The first generation of these agreements expired earlier this year. Most were renewed.

One ITO didn't make the cut. The Residential Construction Industry Training Organization (RCITO) received $450,000 from the ITA last year. In February it was informed that because its member industries weren't registering with the ITA to support apprentices, and few apprentices were signing up for RCITO trades, they would no longer receive ITA funding as of March 31.

Evans told The Tyee Solutions Society that employer sponsorship of apprentices under RCITO dropped from 19 per cent of residential construction employers in 2010/11 to only nine per cent in 2011/12. The ITA previously moved traditional residential trades assigned to RCITO, such as carpentry, to the Construction Industry Training Organization. This left RCITO with newer, more-residential specific trades like geothermal, heat and building envelope technicians, and residential interior and exterior finishing.

Mary Kenny, CEO of RCITO, says employers had signed up to accept apprentices, but all of RCITO's trades, except log building, are brand new. The ITA has not even designated three of the trades, meaning colleges and trades schools can't offer apprenticeship classes in them. Kenny says many employers grew frustrated with the wait times to have courses approved -- as long as four years in some cases -- and just dropped off the list.

"Many residential employers do hire apprentices in the traditional programs but are frustrated with the lack of appropriate skills and knowledge that they bring to the trade. They have been waiting for the new residential-based apprenticeships," she said in an email.

The ITA labels several RCITO trades inactive, meaning there is no technical training available anywhere in B.C. Kenny says the ITA doesn't always consult with industry before they make a trade inactive.

"1.6 million [households] we have in British Columbia, and we're saying that we don't need to have an industry training organization to coordinate trades training for that industry," she said. "In my mind that is scandalous."

Kenny says RCITO isn't the only ITO with a drop in employers hiring apprentices. Evans agrees, saying during a recent episode of the Shaw TV program Voice of B.C. that he's seen a drop in employers hiring apprentices across the board. He says it's typical for a recession, and it took 10 years for numbers to recover after the previous recession. NDP Higher Education Critic Michelle Mungall says other ITOs have been airing their frustrations to her. "The feedback I get from the ITOs," she says, "is they're not really sure what their role is. There are some defined roles, but just because it's in black and white on the Internet doesn't necessarily mean that's what's being done in practice."

Kerry Jothen is another observer who believes the ITOs are underused. Now running a consulting firm, Human Capital Strategies, Jothen was CEO of the ITA's predecessor body, the ITAC.

"I think that ITA needs to let the ITOs do more. The ITOs are the arm of industry, the mechanism through which industries can participate in and be supportive of the trades apprenticeships, and I think the ITA needs to better support the Industry Training Organizations on that," he says.

Who's hiring apprentices anymore?

For its part, the ITA feels industry just isn't pulling its weight when it comes to supporting apprentices. Almost 80 per cent of trade skills are acquired in the field, where employers hire apprentices and provide training on the job. But according to ITA's Evans, not nearly enough employers are taking in trainees. Speaking on cable access program Voice of B.C., Evans revealed that 9,000 companies in B.C. were employing apprentices, a number he says is large, but not enough. Employers can offer to train current employees, too. Canada as a whole, he added, has a poor record of employer training compared to other countries as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But Evans said employers can't poach workers from the competition or hire qualified immigrants to meet their needs.

"If you are not training, you are not going to be able to participate in the economy of the 21st century," Evans said. "This is just a core recognition that it's not somebody else's job to train. It's all of our jobs if we're employers."

Education sealed, not delivered

But more apprenticeship positions alone aren't enough. Some employers, Robertson said, take on apprentices for the wrong reasons, seeing them as cheap labour rather than potential journeymen.

"They'll have them do menial tasks for four years, and then write their exams. They get their Red Seal but they're not qualified," he said. "They haven't been exposed to the full scope of the job."

Other employers simply can't afford to train for the future. Evans estimates that 98 per cent of B.C. employers are small-to-medium size businesses, many of them more worried about making it through the next quarter -- or payroll -- than the next 10 years. A lack of skilled trade applicants doesn't just shortchange B.C. workers who miss an opportunity to land a well-paying job either. Employers are also impacted: forced to spend extra money to induce existing workers to take on overtime, or pass on work and lose out on revenue.

NDP MLA Mungall cites the Mt. Milligan Mine, 155 kilometres northwest of Prince George.

"Mount Milligan Mine is now facing a cost overrun of about $200 million because they cannot get the skilled labour," she said. "These are people with very specific skills that come in to develop the mine, and if you have to employ one person longer rather than having two people, it takes longer to develop the mine and you have a backlog before you can actually start making money."

Nor is B.C. the only place facing a skilled labour shortage. The demand for skilled workers is ramping up globally, Jothen said, and the competition is getting fierce. B.C. employers aren't competing for skills just with other local businesses. They're competing with the rest of the world.

"A lot of the same trades are in very high demand," he said.

Jothen acknowledges that some industries aren't stepping up to the plate on training. But industries are just as frustrated with the ITA. "Some employers have gotten frustrated with ITA," the consultant believes, "and maybe don't see that ITA is responsive enough to their skill requirements and fast enough to help them."

With most trades programs taking at least three years to complete, any changes will take time to show fruit. But with less than a decade before job openings are expected to surpass available workers, time is not on the ITA's side.

Tomorrow: What's missing in B.C. trades training? The story of one young apprentice.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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