Changes needed for apprentices

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

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on December 21, 2011
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.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com