By M. Malatesta


In the rapidly changing construction industry, building trades affiliates are continually upgrading and modernizing their training and apprenticeship programs and schools to meet new challenges.

The Sheet Metal Workers Local 280 has undertaken the most comprehensive redesign in over 40 years, according to training coordinator Jud Martell.

“We’re harmonizing all of the federal and provincial requirements for our Red Seal training programs,” he said. “And we have added a whole new series of training and education courses in our program that cover a range of topics our school hasn’t taught in the past. It’s a big change.”

He said the sheet metal trades have become far more technical and diversified over the past two decades with the growth of digital computer and laser technologies, dozens of new materials and methods for installing them and all the related safety concerns. “There’s been a whole generation of change in our trades,” he said. “There are now over 80 different types of materials we use today, from about seven or eight in the 1970s.”

The changes in the market and working conditions have compelled training schools to become more responsive and more quickly, Martell said.

“Back in the 1970s, the school simply decided what courses and training it would sponsor,” he said. “Members who wanted additional training would have to get it on their own.”

Now, however, Martell said the local has shifted its policy to an assertive program that prepares members for the changes it can see coming.

Currently, there are four levels of apprenticeship with six weeks of training per level in addition to on-the-job work training. Starting this year, there will be eight weeks of training per level.

“We’ve been trying to get these changes in our apprenticeships since 1999,” Martell said. “That’s when we really started to see the need to modernize. It took a while to get some of the contractors on board. But eventually we got everything in place.”

Martell said the changes were ready to be implemented in 2008, when the North American fiscal near-crash that crippled much of the construction sector. The resulting wave of cancelled and delayed projects created huge instability in the industry. The new training and apprenticeship program was put on ice until this year.

“It was all taken off the table,” he said. “It was only last year that we started to make more progress.”

But Martell said global economic upheaval is only one factor working against advancing and modernizing trades training, not only for sheet metal workers, but for all trades. Deliberate anti-union labour legislation of the previous provincial government and underfunding of apprenticeship programs resulted in fewer properly trained workers to meet market demand.

“We’re moving ahead despite decades of government intransigence,” Martell said. “All the anti-union laws and undermining of union construction has left less time for training over the years. But now with a new more labour friendly government, we’re getting back on track.”