CAW Statement on Ontario Apprenticeship Reform

What the government has done for health care and for education, it is now doing to apprenticeship. Behind all the talk about apprenticeship reform and flexibility lies the Tory zeal for deregulation --- shifting more power to employers and more of the burden onto individuals.

Behind the cynical claims that it is responding to the crisis of youth unemployment lies the governments wrongheaded belief that if you deregulate labour markets companies will provide training and create jobs. How many times and in how many places must that mistake be made.

Earlier this year the Ontario government released its proposals to change the apprenticeship training system. Amongst those proposals are a series of changes that will shake an already fragile structure. And behind them is a philosophy and set of principles which will take us backwards rather than move us ahead.

The current debate is not whether or not some changes are needed in the way we deal with apprenticeship. The last major revision to the system in Ontario was back in 1964 and that was to legislation first introduced in 1935. We have long argued that the system needs to be adapted to better meet the needs of apprentices, to overcome companies own shortsightedness, to strengthen the industrial base in the country and to upgrade skilled occupational groups.

The government rejected such a perspective and instead gave the nod to employer changes and packaged those with its own desire to cut its training expenditures and abandon its commitment to workplace based training.

What the government now calls obstacles and barriers are in fact the safeguards developed over the years to protect individual apprentices and to provide a set of rules which serve to advance the body of knowledge, skill and experience that undergirds the trades.

First the federal government pulled the plug on funding the in-class portion of apprenticeships and now the provincial government has seized the occasion to complete the dismantling of the apprentice system.

Current reform efforts are not about change but are a destructive overhaul of apprenticeship, substituting in its place some kind of vague traineeship model that leaves companies calling the shots, individuals without protection and particular trades eroded and hollowed out.

Labour's views have not only been ignored but even worse, the proposals tabled by the government are in contradiction to everything labour has argued for.

Why Apprenticeship?

Apprenticeship is not just a training program. It is a way to develop the next generation of skilled workers and to do so in the context of our workplaces and our working relationships. Issues of workers skills are important to the union, not only in terms of providing opportunities for our members but also because it affects our strength and influences our role in production process. This observation is not lost on government or employers.

What is called skilled work has usually meant better jobs for workers. Not only do they pay more but the jobs are more attractive in terms of skill, mobility, influence, control over work, technical mastery, and relationship to management.

Apprenticeships provides the opportunity for apprentices to work with tradespersons in their area who are able to pass along accumulated trade know-how. They are workplace based which grounds theory in the practical applications of real work situations. They are time based which provides the opportunity to turn learning into knowledge and knowledge into skill. They are jointly controlled by the union and management. They provide opportunities to existing workers to upgrade their skills and move to better jobs. It is that combination which makes apprenticeship such an effective training model.

Apprenticeship reform should build on these strengths. And apprenticeship reform should meet a number of tests.

First is how do we position the apprentice to succeed --- in the program, in the workplace and in the economy.

Second, as workplaces become more technologically intensive, how are we able to deepen skill amongst workers and establish the foundation for continual upgrading.

Third how do we provide opportunities for existing workers and those not in the workplace to acquire skilled trade knowledge and skill.

Fourth, how do we position -- at times reluctant employers -- with the requisite skill base for long term developments.

On each of these points the current reforms fail the test.

Proposed Changes:

There are a number of detrimental changes proposed in the Trades Qualification and Apprenticeship Act. Among them are the following:

  • no ratios of journeypersons-to-apprentices
  • getting rid of regulated wage minimums for apprentices
  • shifting the costs of training to individuals
  • eliminating educational requirements for apprentices
  • eliminating minimum age requirements for apprentices
  • eliminating time rules for apprenticeship programs
  • giving employers more say in compulsory designation
  • encouraging short-term, limited apprenticeships
  • privatizing apprenticeship standards

Cutting Costs:

What the government means by apprenticeship reform has a lot to do with cutting costs. The government talks about "a shift to a more market driven approach in which apprentices take on greater responsibility for their own training..." This "new funding model" means a number of things.

First, it means the government will cut its own costs by imposing tuition fees for the classroom component of apprenticeship.

Second, it will cut employers costs by eliminating the minimum wage requirement for apprentices (for example, no less than 50% of the journeyperson's rate for first year apprentices).

Third, after squeezing the apprentice on both sides it implies that apprentices will be able to borrow money from the 'reformed' U.I. (the new EI). In other words go into debt for their apprenticeship.

We are opposed to shifting the burden of financing the apprenticeship system onto the backs of apprentices.

Workplace ratios:

Another proposal is to get rid of "regulated journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios and replace them with voluntary measures and guidelines developed by industry..." This will mean more apprentices will work without proper guidance and it puts more pressure on the apprentice and tilts the balance from learning to working. Well rounded experience in the trades can't be achieved without the time to learn form journeypersons in the workplace.

Time to train:

The government wants to reduce training time for apprentices and give employers more say over the duration of apprenticeship. The proposal is to "replace the 2 year minimum duration with industry-developed guidelines on how long the apprenticeship should take". It is hard to understand how eliminating the minimum 2-year requirement will lead to higher levels of skill among apprentices and within workplaces. It is much easier to see that just the opposite will occur. Shifting the emphasis from an apprenticeship program that is workplace based and of sufficient length to an industry-developed "competency-based" program is not a solution.

While time requirements may vary, while there is room to discuss the length of programs it has to be recognized that there is a minimum time required to turn learning into knowledge and knowledge into skill. The government's new model of trainees, UI loans and wage subsidies, quickie courses and job specific training is not a substitute for genuine programs of skill development.

Youth and Existing Workers:

The government's reform of apprenticeship goes hand-in-hand with their cost-down restructuring of the schools and the employer bias they are forcing in curriculum development. The government argues that its move to eliminate the grade 10 education level and the age 16 minimum for apprenticeship programs will create new opportunities for youth. But there is no evidence that lowering education requirements and eliminating age requirement for apprentices will remove barriers for young people. Instead the proposal promotes job and company specific skills training in high schools over better all-round academic skills.

The debate isn`t whether or not the compulsory minimum should be grade 10 or grade 12, the important issue is determining the appropriate educational foundation one needs to be successful in an apprenticeship program. Lowering age and education requirements might stream unprepared youth into programs they won't successfully complete or encourage them to drop out of high school at an early age into a very uncertain job market.

The new emphasis on youth will cut off apprenticeship opportunities for existing workers without in any way dealing with the pressing needs for youth employment.

Certification or Employer Voluntarism?

Workplaces are becoming technologically more complex and individual pieces of equipment technically more sophisticated. Throughout industry there are increasing efforts to set standards and demand conformance whether the issue is quality, safety, equipment reliability or technical protocols. It is a strange time to be diluting standards for apprenticeship programs and certification for skilled trades occupations. But that is what the government is doing.

Employers who are pushing for new non-regulated quickie trades that fall outside of regulated or compulsory framework have got their way. The government has acquiesced to those demands.

As it is there are only 19 trades which require a worker to be registered as an apprentice to obtain a provincial Certificate of Qualification to work in the trade. This certification process is an effective way of establishing standards, requiring conformance, recognizing competence and ensuring mobility across the economy.

Where are we going with it?

Maintaining and strengthening an effective apprenticeship program is a priority for our union.

It is now especially critical when the overall numbers of apprentices in important trade areas has been on the decline in recent years and when many of our current skilled trades members will be eligible to retire in the next few years.

In the face of the government's Apprenticeship Reform we need a strategy to:

  • make sure companies continue to implement "broader" apprenticeship programs;
  • resist company initiatives that fragment and hollow-out the trades
  • make sure companies implement contractual journey- person/apprentice ratios;
  • intensify our affirmative action measures to assure equal opportunity for all workers;
  • continue to push for on-going skilled trades training and updating so that learned skills do not become obsolete;
  • continue to negotiate resources for the Joint Apprenticeship Committee
  • require employers to cover tuition charges
  • work with employers to provide expanded opportunities for existing members
  • work to develop innovative programs for youth
  • pressure government to continue to fund and support apprenticeship training
  • argue for a funding model that will ensure a future supply of skilled tradespersons

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