Changes needed for apprentices

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Skilled trades workers in N.L. being lost to other provinces, professions: critics

Apprentice millwright Jessica Mercer. — Photo courtesy of the Office to Advance Women Apprentices

First in a three-part series

The skilled trades apprentices of today are the journeypersons of tomorrow. That is, if they make it through their training and earn their status.

Yet for those entering the trades, months — if not years — of working in another province remains standard before they can accrue enough hours under a certified journeyperson to achieve full status.

Apprentices who leave this province risk not returning as journeypersons, as they settle in to life on the mainland.

For those who do not leave, or come home to stay just one or two years into their training, there is a risk of becoming a so-called “stalled apprentice,” with training dragging out beyond the typical three to five years, as they fight for one of a limited number of local apprenticeship spaces.

Labour shortage could be crippling

Some of these trainees ultimately give up on their first career choice, finding positions in other fields like retail — to the detriment of the skilled labour market.

Losing skilled workers either way is tough to swallow, particularly  as the province faces a potentially crippling skilled labour shortage.

A report on major projects from the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council, spring 2011,  found  Newfoundland and Labrador is facing 103 projects totalling an estimated $43.6 billion.

It includes the $3-billion nickel processing facility at Long Harbour, the $8.3-billion Hebron offshore oil development and the $6.2 billion in transmission lines and other work for the Muskrat Falls project (assuming final approval). These three projects on their own are expected to create about 9,200 jobs during construction, the majority being in the skilled trades.

Direct employment adds to the benefits flowing into the provincial economy from these projects. In this way, the issue of apprenticeships and the skilled labour pool is about public finance as much as career opportunity. 

Shortage predicted

The issue is not new. In 2007, a skilled trades task force was created under then-premier Danny Williams to consider how to overcome a predicted shortage of skilled tradespeople. The task force produced a set of recommendations for improving the apprenticeship period here — both for those entering the skilled trades and for employers. The aim was to keep more workers in-province.

Despite this, apprenticeships and skilled labour development remain a challenge, according to statements made this fall before the Hebron Public Review Commission.

While not speaking on behalf of his employer, Paul Tilley — an instructor at the College of the North Atlantic in Clarenville — addressed the commission at a public meeting on Nov. 24.

“There are not enough apprenticeship positions in the province,” he said.

“Students can go to Alberta now and receive their hours for Alberta,” Tilley said. “They can’t choose to stay here.”

The statements echoed those of Marystown Mayor Sam Synard, who had addressed the commission the day before.

Synard called the current apprenticeship situation “a complete fiasco.”

“It’s a complete embarrassment that we’ve done such a terrible job on our apprenticeship program when we know in front of us there is a need for apprentices,” he said.

“We’re talking now about … importing people into this province to work when we have the highest unemployment rate in any region of North America, which is really a great disconnect.” 

The Statistics Canada yearbook for 2011 reported our unemployment rate was the highest among Canadian provinces, at 14.4 per cent, second to Prince Edward Island, at 11.2 per cent (territories are not listed).

The apprenticeship issue has driven the creation of the province’s Department of Advanced Education and Skills, under Minister Joan Burke.

“We have 6,000 apprentices registered in the province, so where are they? You know, we should be well underway of filling all the labour gaps,” Burke remarked following her appointment.

It was in 2007, while Burke was minister of education, that the skills task force produced All the Skills to Succeed: Report of the Newfoundland and Labrador Skills Task Force, outlining the means to develop a skilled trades labour pool.

“Training and certification of apprentices that achieves a nationally recognized level of expertise is essential to ensuring a reliable supply of qualified skilled workers,” it stated.

The job of implementing the recommendations was handed to the provincial Industry Co-ordinating Committee (ICC), created in 2008 and including representatives from the provincial government, business, labour, post-secondary institutions and non-governmental agencies.

“We’ve been able to address 84 per cent of the recommendations,” Burke told The Telegram recently. “We have doubled the number of seats in the skilled trades at the College of the North Atlantic.”

The province has advanced as a result of the work.

Sporadically published progress from the ICC suggest a dramatic leap in the number of women being certified in the trades.

For example, in a 2009 report, Rick Dalton, the business manager for a local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, stated the province was expected to go from having no female electricians with journeyperson status to a minimum of 96 by the year 2013.  

The Office to Advance Women Apprentices did not exist before 2009. As well, apprenticeship spaces for women are now encouraged financially through provincial government subsidies.

Meanwhile, the Resource Development Trades Council of Newfoundland and Labrador (RDC), a union collective, has praised the creation of the new Department of Advanced Education and Skills and the new position of assistant deputy minister responsible for labour market recruitment (major projects), filled by Bill Duggan in October.

RDC has also applauded interest in a Workforce Development Secretariat, as promised in the Dunderdale government’s Blue Book in the last election.

Despite the positives, the number of available journeypersons has fought to keep pace with the number of young people in the province being drawn into the trades.

“The total number of registered apprentices grew by 68 per cent between 2007 and 2009 (from 3,238 to 5,423),” according to Department of Education data quoted in Newfoundland and Labrador Labour Market: Outlook 2020.

In 2010, according to the provincial government website, the number of registered apprentices jumped to 6,158.

Comparatively, Outlook 2020 states the number of available journeypersons increased by 89 per cent from 2007 to 2009. That percentage, however, is fed by much smaller numbers — 261 journeypersons in 2007 to 494 in 2009.

The St. John’s Board of Trade has noted a pilot project the province is underway this year, allowing some journeypersons to take on two apprentices rather than just one. That initiative is up for review this spring, according to the board.

“This pilot project has to become government policy. It would be a backward step for government to have two people getting closer to achieving journeyperson status reduced to one,” it stated.

Critics say even more will need to be done, and done quickly, if the province wants to capitalize on the construction megaprojects already in the works.

The volunteer Provincial Apprenticeship and Certification Board has an “activity plan” for April 1, 2011 to March 31, 2014 of only nine pages, including general statements rather than any particular, rapid actions for change.

The province has not yet made a commitment to continuing the Provincial Government Hiring Apprenticeship Program, aimed at providing public-sector employment opportunities for apprentices. The program received $2 million in 2009-2010 and $2.25 million in 2010-2011.

In the Thursday and Friday editions of The Telegram, we sit down with apprentices and employers to discuss some of the challenges for apprentices today and some of the ideas being floated to maximize use of the province’s skilled labour pool in the coming years.

Organizations: APEC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia New Brunswick Prince Edward Island Maritime

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Recent comments

  • Denis Trainor
    February 09, 2012 - 01:34

    From what I've been reading things in NL having changed in over 40 years. I left there in 1969 for the same reason. I had done a Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Apprenticeship Course and was in my last year when I got laid off . I paid Union Dues all the time I worked and for all the time that I was off. After 1 year with no work in my trade I decided to go West to B.C. and the rest is HISTORY. I retired 5 years ago after having worked 37 years in B.C. wthout ever being laid off. I still call NL. Home and I always will but as far as working in the province is concerned I think it is one of the worst in Canada to work as a Trades man.

  • mike
    December 23, 2011 - 14:58

    Theres no skilled trade shortage in Newfoundland. All lies and propaganda. Its just people fretting, in the next few years that there "could be" a shortage. In Newfoundland a Red Seal Journeyman can collect unemployment insurance untill it runs dry, without the goverment saying boo. Try that in Alberta. Within a month they will have you in for meetings and you'll be pointed in the right direction to get a job, and your benefits would be stopped. Do you really think the government would just sit by and give you money for months and months if there were a "skilled trade labour shortage" ?? I think not. Blame it on the unions all you like, their members are sitting home right now collecting EI.

  • Max
    December 21, 2011 - 19:02

    I read this article with great interest , and although not an apprentice myself, I have two brothers who are retired Electricians and a son who is struggling to fulfill the requirements of Newfoundland's Electrical Apprenticeship Program. The comments made by a number of previous posters ring true, as I have witnessed my son's efforts to get through this apprenticeship. Wendy's comments ring true , as my son recently joined the Union and was told it would be at least 6months before he got a call, this despite the fact that Long Harbor is crying out for workers. My son also objected to paying Union Dues while not working at the trade, and from his limited resources from a minimum wage retail job. While the Union was apparently not prepared to help him for a minimum of 6 months. There is something seriously wrong here, and Government is being ineffective and will continue to be so until they are prepared to deal effectively with the Union and employers and enforce the regulations they presently have in place, especially the Journeyman to apprentice ratio, which employers are ignoring, and is doing nothing to enhance the number of apprentices productively employed. as mentioned previously I have two brothers retired from the Electrical Trade, the older of the two was obliged to move from Newfoundland and in conversations expressed his unwillingness to move back to Newfoundland and face an uncertain employment future, while he was able to maintain fairly constant employment in the Trade elsewhere in Canada. The younger of the two was fortunate to find employment in the Government sector where he worked till retirement. Unfortunately the course hasn't been so rosy for my son, and it seems the closer he gets to his goal of achieving Journeyman status, the harder it is to find employment in the trade, and who in recent years has spent increasing periods of time unable to find employment in the Trade. I've encourage him to look in other directions and take advantage of his University Education, frankly I don't feel that the local Electrical fraternity deserves his loyalty, as they've shown very little to him. Unless government can find someway to right this ship, they will continue to lose apprentices to other more interesting, more rewarding and deserving locales and employment opportunities. as the saying goes, :Something stinks in Denmark"

  • Henry
    December 21, 2011 - 15:20

    As well, apprenticeship spaces for women are now encouraged financially through provincial government subsidies. Ain't this discrimination? Can you imagine men getting this subsidy and not women. There would be a hugh protest.

    • Linda Thomas
      January 02, 2012 - 13:36

      Men are subsidized all their lives right through to the old boys network. Not until there is true equality in the workplace would Henry's comment hold a shred of validity. From what I see and have expereinced as a trades woman, this equality is a long time away. Until then, go women go!

  • Wendy
    December 21, 2011 - 13:04

    My son's experience in trying to get a job in Newfoundland has been blocked by the union. They hire relatives, take your union dues and make you wait a year before you can get a job.

  • Brad
    December 21, 2011 - 11:27

    I am a skilled trades person working in Alberta. I could not find gainful employment in NL that paid well so I left for the mainland where there are plenty of well paying jobs. The employers in NL take advantage of apprentices, and the unions ensure only family members and their buddies ever get work. The best thing for a young apprentice to do for their future is to move west and never look back. After working here and acquiring my hours the companies in NL that wouldn't give me a chance as an apprentice can kiss my backside as I refuse to be used. Also I get paid almost 3 times what they are paying in Long Harbour for my trade. I am from Long Harbour and would never even consider a job there, even if I could get in the union. Besides who wants to work for a year or 2 and then look for another job. There are no fulltime jobs available and you have to chase down construction jobs that are only temporary and unreliable. I will stay where I am and reap the benefits that aren't present in the NL working environment.

  • John
    December 21, 2011 - 11:03

    I worked abroad for most of my apprenticeship. Now as a red seal journeyman back working in Alberta it becomes difficult to leave. There is a huge gap in wages between the two provinces and too little full time jobs in Newfoundland. It's hard to leave the security of the wages and benefits here for teporary work at home. I hope the province does do something to rectify these issues in the future.

  • willow
    December 21, 2011 - 10:42

    While I agree with alot being said in the article it's also noteworthy to mention that if you are a skilled trades person and you are not affiliated with a union here you will not get any work.Apprentices and Journeymen alike are not given the chance to work in Long Harbour or any other major project if they are not in the union. A family member of mine is a 4th year Pipefitter who has been working in Alberta for the last 5 years and cannot get a look in for Long Harbour because he's not in the union. He's quite willing to join if he's hired buy why pay an association who can't get you a job but does not want you working on another unionized site. Who's going to pay your bills while your waiting for that call that may or may not come from the union? There's hundreds if not thousands of skilled trades workers from NL that fall under this same catch 22. We do not have a shortage of skilled trades people it's a shortage of unionized skilled trades workers. That needs to change.

  • wayne
    December 21, 2011 - 09:09

    I know about a dozen young people who have seriously tried to get into skilled trades and many more who have given it a half hearted shot. The story is always the a small fortune to a private school or wait for years to get into a public college. Do your first block of courses and then can't get a job or get a job that pays the same as McDonalds but work like a slave. IF you manage to get your hours go back for another block of course and then it's even harder to get a job because nobody wants you. Some folks spend a fortune to find out that they are not suited for the trade. Soon there will be no skilled trades left and it's our fault because of our messed up system. In at least one westen province they do it get hired on as a junior apprentice FIRST and work at the basics of the trade. If you like it and get your hours THEN you start doing courses. It saves the student from wasting money and it frees up seats in classes of people who don't want to be there.