Boosting skilled trades

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Labour union training centres playing bigger role in apprentice training in fabricating, welding

by Mary Scianna

Apprenticeship programs in Canada have a long history.

Tens of thousands of skilled workers have emerged from such programs, typically administered by technical colleges. Somewhere along the way though, enrolment at technical colleges began to drop and lead to the closure of some programs. As a result, the quality of skilled trades workers began to decline, which in turn has lead to the shortage of skilled workers we face today.

Much is being done across the country to address the issue. In Ontario, one of Canada’s manufacturing hubs, unions are increasingly playing a role in the training of its workers through union and union-employer training centres. The centres are part of the Ontario government’s training infrastructure overseen by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. They are non-profit facilities owned and administered either jointly by unions and employers through joint training funds, or administered by the union locals on their own.

One active organization is the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), which represents the unionized industrial, commercial and institutional industries. It includes 25 building trade unions (e.g. Ironworkers and Sheet Metal Workers), employers who participate in apprenticeship programs, and Ontario government representatives. 

In 2008, the OCS published a study of union and union-employer training centres to assess their contribution to trades apprenticeships and skills training. It identified 65 training centres, 30 of which are union-administered, delivering certified apprenticeship programs across Ontario. In 2006, the training centres delivered approximately 766,000 hours of in-class apprenticeship training to 3,184 apprentices in the construction trades. The OCS’s study noted the total capital investment in union training facilities and equipment ranged from $184 – $200 million, with a best estimate of approximately $191 million.

Enrolment at these training facilities has been increasing steadily and has outpaced enrolment growth in college-administered programs, notes the study. Kevin Rabishaw, one of the training advisory committee members involved with the study, can confirm this find. He’s the executive director of the Ontario Sheet Metal Workers Training Center, a multi-million dollar 30,000 sq ft facility that opened its doors in 2006. 

“We started our discussions in 2000. Industry saw the need for training because the existing system was not keeping up with technological changes occurring on the shop floor. The industry agreed to create a program with a 50/50 funding model by the workforce and the Ontario Sheet Metal Contractors Association.”

Since 2006, the facility has trained 1,100 students—both apprentices and journeypersons. Rabishaw says he expects to see that number grow steadily, particularly since the facility has expanded its geographic reach with the recent addition of a $1.2 million mobile training unit, equipped with Lincoln welding equipment.

“The mobile unit goes out to far-reaching more remote areas of Ontario because it’s not easy for some people working in these areas to come down to our Oakville facility,” says Rabishaw, noting Oakville was selected because approximately 70 per cent of union members are located within a 60 to 90 minute drive from it. “It’s a 55-ft trailer that expands into a 1000 sq ft training facility.”

Editor’s Note
The shortage of skilled trades people is a gouging gap in Canada’s manufacturing industry, but some are taking the bull by the horns to fill it. This special report began as a story about one industry supplier’s efforts with labour union training centres and apprenticeship programs, but evolved into a two-part report as I learned more about the efforts of a college and a secondary school that are helping to raise the profile of manufacturing among the next generation of our workforce. The two-part report in the August and September/October issues of Shop Metalworking Technology Magazine will cover just some of the numerous initiatives underway by businesses and educational institutions. 

There is nothing more critical today than improving the skills of today’s workforce and educating the next generation, a generation that holds Canada’s manufacturing future in its hands. How we handle education in manufacturing today will determine the success or demise of our industry in the years to come. SMT

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