May 17, 2021

WHEN THE BC LIBERALS DEFEATED THE NDP in May 2001, everyone expected changes to apprenticeship training.

But few expected the degree of devastation that followed.

The Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission (ITAC) was dissolved in 2003 and replaced with the ITA (Industry Training Authority).

By 2007, apprenticeship completions had dropped by over 30 per cent. Support for apprentices went from 120 staff at 16 offices around the province to fewer than 10 at the Richmond headquarters.

All 40 counsellors, supporting apprentices through the system, were cut.

Compulsory certification requirements for 12 trades were eliminated (see illustration).

With the new “self-help” model, apprentices got lost and some gave up, attempting the complex online requirement to update changes to their sponsors, verifying hours worked and struggling to register for technical studies.

The technical institutes and colleges were also in disarray competing against each other. Provincial staff who had previously co-ordinated technical class offerings by all institutions were gone. The ITA, front desk, with three staff, couldn’t manage the load.

Trades training cuts were part of a larger picture. With a massive majority of 77 seats out of 79 at the legislature, Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberals cut regulations by one-third in every ministry and department. The ideology of “cutting red tape” was to ease business competition and increase efficiency. For trades training, it meant certifying workers for completing modules.

Task-trained “framer-formers” were certified to replace fullscope carpenters.

“Rebar placers” were certified in the ironworker trade.

The changes were welcomed by the Coalition of BC Businesses, the BC Business Council and the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA). Together they had long been calling to end labour, employer and government stakeholder governance of the ITAC, which had successfully expanded trades training to include targeted groups – Indigenous, women and non-traditional workers – into trades training. The business coalition argued the system was too regulated and hamstrung employers. Their submissions: Assessing ITAC (2000) and What is the Future (September 2001) said that apprenticeship counsellors were “an unnecessary complication in the otherwise straightforward process.”

Building Trades executive directors from those days remember this time all too well.

“Task-oriented training was designed so some employers could keep wages low and bring more people into the workforce,” said Tom Sigurdson, executive director during the first years of the Gordon Campbell government.

“Labour would become a less expensive commodity because of the training. It would not take four years to have somebody who was qualified to do the job. It would take them essentially a couple of weeks and then be able to perform the task.”

In 2003, Sigurdson moved to Ottawa for a position with Canada’s Building Trades Unions. His successor, Wayne Peppard, continued to fight against the changes. “We tried to engage with the government but the doors were closed. At our convention in 2006, delegates from affiliate unions sat down with MLAs and cabinet ministers. They wouldn’t listen to our concerns.”

Faced with government stonewalling, Peppard found new allies.

“I built a meaningful and respectful relationship with the BC Construction Association, BCCA,” Peppard remembered. “Like me, their president Manley McLachlan was new. He didn’t carry baggage from the past. We could disagree with respect. We were honest about our positions. There was no belittling of the Building Trades.”

By 2007 with Red Seal completions by training programs still 30 per cent below 1999 levels, opposition from the BCCA grew. The ITA was beginning to recognize shortcomings. Accordingly, the ITA increased staff to 17 working at the Richmond office.

Meanwhile inside government, the Auditor General responded by completing a performance audit. Released in November 2008, the report concluded:

“The ITA did not sufficiently consult or collaborate with its stakeholders in developing its plans and strategies. Given the significance of the changes being introduced and the number of stakeholders involved, this was a large omission.”

Arne Johansen, joint board chair of the BC Building Trades’ apprenticeship committee, recalled, “It wasn’t until 2010 when we got appropriate training for level 1-3 for the generalist ironworker. But it was still difficult to get through the process where you get everything linked. The system was ‘coordinated’ so you could challenge the exam based on your experience regardless of what the experience was.”

In 2010, the lack of qualified journey trades and apprentices was hurting workers, consumers and employers alike. Most realized the system had to be repaired, but some were still focused on the quick fix, not a long-term repair. In fact, the program wasn’t working at all. Only about 40 per cent of apprenticeships were successfully completed. Philip Hochstein, then president of the ICBA, told The Tyee newspaper the answer was more temporary foreign workers. He argued skilled foreign workers were needed to train B.C. apprentices.

Then Liberal Jobs Minister Pat Bell admitted that bringing back counsellors for apprentices could improve apprenticeship completion rates. Around the same time, many began to accept that B.C.’s abolition of compulsory trades wasn’t good for workers, consumers or employers.

Sigurdson remembers well the personal hardship caused by eliminating compulsory trades, that left B.C. the lone outlier in all of Canada with no compulsory trades.

“We never stopped lobbying for compulsory trades. We were very critical of the government for having deregulated them,” said Sigurdson, who had returned from Ottawa in 2010 to once again lead the BCBT.

It was 2011 when a young man came into Sigurdson’s office and explained how a contractor had employed him for six years, the whole time saying he was an apprentice earning his way to a recognized apprenticeship. But in realty, his employer never registered his apprenticeship with the ITA.

“I remember him being so devastated that he broke down in my office and started to cry,” Sigurdson said.

Some people say politics doesn’t matter, but Sigurdson said the young man crying in his office that day when he found out he hadn’t been advancing through a legitimate apprenticeship, was just one of thousands of B.C. workers suffering from political decisions made to decimate training programs.

“That is directly due to the greed, a contractor that was afforded the opportunity to rip people off. They were afforded that opportunity by a political administration that paid back the ICBA for having financed the Liberal campaign in 2001.”

Peppard remembers his own apprenticeship as a steamfitter, and how he would not have successfully completed the training without his counsellor. Just how fortunate he was became clear when he started seeing the work of poorly trained workers.

“I remember running around behind people who didn’t have qualifications. But the clients had to pay much more in the end as I had to fix the earlier mistakes.”

Building Trades affiliates remained involved as much as possible in apprenticeships. Joint board administrators and counsellors continued to do their work. Because of that, affiliate unions have consistently delivered higher completion rates.

“Throughout the entire Liberal regime and dismantling of trades training, Building Trades joint boards ensured the interests of apprentices, employers and the general public were upheld,” Peppard said. “Through our collective agreements, Hydro construction and highways apprenticeship ratios, technical training and full-scope requirements were respected. The social aspect of training was embedded in our agreements.”

Johansen agreed the ITA model wasn’t producing skilled workers.

“The ITA’s model was good enough if someone could manage with a pair of pliers and tie rebar together.”

There were mistakes, however, in much of the work. “Can you put it (rebar) in and tie it? They weren’t worried about the accuracy of the work or concerned for those that came behind,” Johansen remembered.

Not many look to Alberta for progressive labour policies, but there was good reason to consider why Alberta’s apprenticeship training programs were producing better results than B.C.’s.

Compared to B.C.’s 40 per cent apprenticeship graduation rates, almost 80 per cent of Alberta apprentices were successfully completing their training.

Two of the keys to Alberta’s success were apprenticeship counsellors and maintaining compulsory trades.

“Having spent a lot of time in Alberta, I would argue they didn’t care much for labour, they didn’t have much concern about the apprentices, but what they did have a concern about was how industry needed qualified labour to develop their projects,” said Sigurdson, a former Alberta MLA.

The BC Building Trades has never stopped fighting for compulsory trades and many contractors — union and nonunion — supported their efforts.

Now, the recently re-elected B.C. NDP provincial government looks to be restoring compulsory trades in B.C., which is the only Canadian province without designated compulsory trades.

When Premier John Horgan announced the new NDP cabinet in December, it included mandate letters to Labour Minister Harry Bains, Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang and skills training parliamentary secretary Andrew Mercier to “restore the compulsory trades system to improve safety and give more workers a path to apprenticeship completion.”

The women’s committee of the BC Building Trades, Build TogetHER BC represents and mentors women in the construction trades, and is a big part of the future of the industry.

So, when the return to compulsory trades was announced, Build TogetHER BC was quick off the line with a letter to the editor published in 59 community newspapers.

“We have written articles, we have lobbied government,” Build TogetHER BC co-chair Chelsea French said in an interview. French is a commercial transportation mechanic.

“It is important, because it doesn’t just affect us as trades people. It affects homeowners, it affects businesses, it affects every person that is hiring somebody that is potentially not trained.”

Compulsory trades protect workers and consumers as well, French explained.

Without minimum standards for tradespeople like mechanics, people’s lives are at risk.

“This means my daughter brings her vehicle into a mechanic’s shop and somebody with no idea how to change her brakes does it anyway and she drives away with brakes that are faulty.”

Journey tradespeople are at risk if they are poorly trained and pressured to do unsafe work. New employees and underrepresented groups like women are especially vulnerable to those pressures.

“Women are more likely to be put in those situations. I have children and a family to support, I needed the job. I worked for companies where I crawled through asbestos, because I needed the money, I needed the work. I did things that I shouldn’t have,” French said.

With properly registered compulsory trades, workers shouldn’t have to be pressured into unsafe work, and consumers should be confident in the work they are paying for.

French doesn’t believe a lot of time should be spent arguing over which trades should be compulsory. She says worker and consumer protection demands they all should be compulsory.

“It just makes sense. When the Liberal government dismantled all this, changed the Safety Standards Act, then they cut into our Industry Training Authority,” French said.

“Everybody now is doing catchup to have the best qualified tradespeople. It’s a big job to undertake, but it really needs to be done.”

By David Hogben and Joe Barrett

Joe Barrett was the BC Building Trades researcher from 1997 to 2012, and Indigenous liaison for LiUNA Local 1611 from 2015 to 2018. David Hogben is a freelance writer, human rights activist, and has been a regular Tradetalk contributor since 2013, after a reporting and editing career at a number of Western Canadian newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun.