Ontario’s apprenticeship plan designed to degrade trades and public education

By Jeff Tomlinson 

In March, Ontario’s Doug Ford government announced that high school students will soon be able to transition into full-time apprenticeship training in grade 11. Upon receiving trade certification, they can then apply to obtain their high school diploma as mature students. To accommodate this new policy, the government simultaneously announced it was looking into reducing admission standards to the 75 percent of trades that currently require a high school diploma.

The government says this reform expands options for high school students and makes the trades a more attractive career choice. The messaging makes it appear as if the reform were modeled off highly developed and well-regarded vocational education systems in many other parts of the world. This is not the case. In reality, this is just a logical step in the ongoing degradation of the trades and apprenticeship system as well as public education.

In 2019, the provincial government tried to increase high school class sizes by 25 percent in an attempt to significantly reduce the number of teachers and education workers and, most importantly, funding. Ultimately, they failed when they were met with enormous resistance from education unions, the broader labour movement, parents and the public. The new apprenticeship proposal seems to be a slick attempt to achieve a similar goal: push students and staff out of the public education system. If large numbers of students leave school at grade 11, cuts to staffing and funding will follow. On top of the loss of jobs, public schools have static costs that they won’t be able to keep up with due to the current enrolment-based funding formula and already inadequate funding. This will stimulate a crisis in the public system and degrade confidence in it, creating opportunities for the government to implement a more aggressive privatization agenda.

Over the past several years, the provincial government has provided hundreds of millions in public funding to training centres through the “Skills Development Fund”. Most of these facilities are operated by Joint Apprenticeship Councils (union-employer groups) or by building trades unions. Publicly funded education providers like school boards or CAATs are ineligible to receive any of this funding unless they enter into a P3 with funding-eligible organizations. These training centres provide the required classroom-based portions of apprenticeships, though for certain trades, many of the public colleges do so too.

Changing entry requirements on paper doesn’t change the actual competency required for a successful apprenticeship. Considering that the minimum qualification to start an apprenticeship in three-quarters of trades is a grade 12 diploma, these private training centres will likely have to start providing “basic” education currently provided by teachers in public high schools.

It is worth asking if the government is using the apprenticeship reform as a cynical attempt to divide the labour movement. On the one hand, public education unions are fighting against privatization, and on the other, building trades unions benefit from substantial levels of public funding for training centres. Ford’s strategy may not work, though, since there is no uniform position coming from the building trades unions. Some unions are supportive of the government’s proposal. But others, such as the IBEW-CCO and Unifor’s Skilled Trades Council, have spoken out against it, seeing it for what it is. Overall, however, there is an opportunity for education unions and building trades unions to use their combined expertise and work together in defeating these reforms and pushing for sensible and progressive policy on trades and apprenticeships.

Deregulation of the apprenticeship and trades system

The Ford government’s antipathy towards public education is well documented. Their similar perspective toward workers in the trades is less obvious. Since their election in 2018, there has been a steady process of deregulation in the trades. Most of these changes have been “guided” by the lobbying efforts of anti-union employers’ groups such as Merit Ontario and other groups like the Progressive Contractors’ Association. The latter works closely with the Christian Labour Alliance of Canada (CLAC), a company “union” which is derided in the unionized building trades.

In 2018 the government passed Bill 47, The Making Ontario Open for Business Act. Along with freezing the minimum wage, taking away paid sick days and making it harder for workers to join unions, the bill brought equally regressive changes to the trades and apprenticeship system. These included winding down and closing of the Ontario College of Trades and imposing a 1:1 apprentice to journeyperson ratio. In 2019, the province passed Bill 66, The Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act. This law deemed municipalities and other public sector entities to be “non-construction employers” and allowed them to abrogate any pre-existing bargaining relationship they had with the construction unions.

The Ontario College of Trades was a self-regulating professional body which governed the standards, training requirements and certification of skilled trades and apprenticeships. Bill 47 placed these responsibilities under political control, through the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities. In 2022, the Ministry (now called the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development) established Skilled Trades Ontario to administer these responsibilities. By eliminating the independent regulatory body, the stage was set for the deregulation and de-professionalization long campaigned for by employer-lobbyists, leaving workers and their unions disenfranchised.

The same bill imposed the 1:1 ratio, ostensibly to address a future labour shortage. Prior to this, the ratios included more tradespeople than apprentices and were planned and tweaked based on future needs, training quality, safety and other factors. The real aim of Ford’s change was to allow employers to replace a large amount of certified tradespeople with lower-paid apprentices. By creating a pipeline to the jobsite, employers are incentivized to fire apprentices before they complete their training because they can pay newer ones less – making worse an already abysmal completion rate. In addition to increasing unemployment among tradespeople, this makes jobsites more dangerous and harms the quality of training.

In British Columbia, a 1:1 ratio has been in place since 2003. A 2017 report by the BC Federation of Labour reported that the injury rate in the trades is 4x higher than the Canadian average. By flooding job sites with unqualified workers, the small number of remaining tradespeople are unable to adequately train or supervise apprentices, risking the health and safety of all workers and degrading the quality of the future workforce.

Bill 66 is one of the most aggressively anti-union laws passed in Ontario in recent memory. Allowing public and broader-public sector employers to unilaterally tear up their collective bargaining relationships with the construction trades should have been a scandal, but it received scant attention at the time of its passing. Even leaving aside the heinousness of this attack on labour, the law undermines the government’s own stated aims about fixing the alleged labour shortage in the skilled trades. Unionization and union density is directly related to the successful completion of an apprenticeship.

In a 2013 report, the Ontario Construction Secretariat shows that apprenticeship completion rates are substantially higher for trades with high union density in general, and that apprentices being trained through (unionized) Joint Apprentice Committees have a 75 percent completion rate, 29 percent higher than the completion rate for those being trained by single employers (largely non-unionized) at 58 percent.

Reform means students will exit the skilled trades faster

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Encouraging departure from full-time school in grade 11 deprives students of access to many of the more in-depth, comprehensive courses that contribute to the “full development of the human personality”. The shift towards purely technical and vocational education runs against what the function of the education system is supposed to be. In recent years, many countries have shifted to extending the period of compulsory education to the age of 18, something implemented in Ontario almost 20 years ago.

The high school completion rate in the early 2000s was below 70 percent. In 2021 it was 89 percent. The gains made to educational outcomes in recent decades are at risk of being erased. The completion rate for apprentices in Ontario is between 54% and 67% depending on the industry sector. The vast majority of apprentices have a high school diploma, at least. If they don’t complete their training, they have a relatively simple pathway into other forms of post-secondary education. If completion rates stay the same, between one-third to just under half of apprentices who participate in this program will leave their training without completing a certificate, leaving them without a high school diploma and severely limited pathways to other forms of post-secondary education. Even that may be too rosy a number, as completion rates for apprenticeships are likely to decrease under this proposal.

The IBEW stated in 2017 that, “As a practical matter, someone with only grade 10 would have considerable difficulty completing the in-school portion of their trades training.  Major employers, such as Hydro One, require high school completion which must include successful completion of grade 12 math and English and senior science.” The union went on to say that “an employer who sponsors an apprentice who has not completed high school is seeking a helper, not a real apprentice” and insisted that “step Number One to increasing completion rates is to raise the admission standard … to grade 12 completion including grade 12 math, physics and English.”

The government claims it is trying to build the future of the province by preparing young people for a rewarding and attractive career in the skilled trades. There is broad public support for expanding vocational education pathways, but if a goal in our society is to increase young workers’ participation in the trades and make it an attractive and desirable career choice, this isn’t one of those pathways. Lowering entry requirements, encouraging union busting, and severely limiting the ability of tradespeople to provide quality training to apprentices accomplishes the exact opposite. This will create an ill-prepared workforce and further diminish the social perception of the trades.

In many countries that have highly developed vocational education systems, the credentials earned by apprentices are socially equivalent to university degrees or CAAT diplomas, and often provide a direct pathway into other forms of post-secondary education. These vocational systems generally provide both a comprehensive education and vocational qualifications and are delivered through a combination of school-based and work-based learning. The earned qualifications don’t just allow for upward educational mobility, but they are highly valued on their own. A good start in Ontario might be to explore the mobility of trades qualifications, and ensuring students are prepared for further learning by strengthening the secondary school system with more and better supports, more programming, smaller class sizes, and adequate funding levels.

Within the trades itself, the Ontario College of Trades should be restored as an independent, self-regulating professional association to ensure that the most important aspects of these professions are governed by people qualified to perform the work. Statutory union membership (especially for apprentices) and sectoral bargaining would go even further to improve the attractiveness of a career in the trades.

The Ontario government’s proposals are more about pushing students out of the public schools into a workforce they are unprepared to succeed in. It is driven by a desire to undermine the public education system and make the labour market even more precarious, to workers’ detriment and for the benefit of the employer-lobbyists.

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