Industry Perspectives: Promoting the Value of Certification Critical to Ontario’s Future

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Daily Commercial News on May 28, 2018. Written by James Barry.

We continue to hear about the challenges Ontario is facing and will continue to face in retaining and recruiting much-need skilled trades professionals.

However, it is alarming that a proposed solution by some is to lower the standards on training and safety as a way to attract more people to the trades.

The idea that compulsory certification is a barrier to growth is comparable to saying the best way to recruit more doctors to work in northern Ontario is to allow anyone to do the work.

If Ontario wishes to ensure a vibrant and strong economy then it’s critical its workforce is among the best trained and safest in the world.

When it comes to compulsory skilled trades like electricians, sheet metal workers and pipefitters there are inherent risks that come with the job and it is critical those undertaking that work have had the benefit of comprehensive training to ensure their own protection as well as the safety of other workers and the public. There has and always will be a reason why these trades are compulsory.

The challenge is that skilled trades have not been seen as a career of choice. And a movement has begun to change that perception. Elevating the status of skilled trades and protecting the value of certification is the way to draw people to jobs that will be critical to our province’s economic sustainability.

If we want to fill these skilled trades jobs, then we must position them as careers that provide good pay, personal satisfaction and a work environment where they feel safe.

Removing compulsory status will not only put both workers and the public at risk but it suggests we aren’t looking for the best candidates when it comes to jobs that help build and maintain important infrastructure that needs reliable and safe power.

Electrical deaths are declining thanks to increased awareness and a focus on safety, however, as the Electrical Safety Authority’s 2014 Safety Report highlights, there were 148 electrical fatalities in Ontario over the last 10 years and faulty electrical infrastructure accounts for 700 fires annually. The risks and danger are still there.

Studies indicate new workers are the most vulnerable and at risk of injury or death. No one should be terrified to go to work because he or she is being put in unsafe work conditions whether it’s from not having proper oversight on the job or working with someone who is unqualified. Journeyperson to apprentice ratios are there for a reason.

Reducing oversight and mandatory safety and training will not only put workers and safety at risk but it will also have a financial impact on taxpayers.

As certified trades professionals, we are often called upon to redo the work of an unqualified worker. That winning bid that came in lower because they used less expensive, uncertified labour can end up costing substantially more due to the costs of the work being done twice.

For example, our certified electricians were called in to fix a flooded conduit with high voltage cable that had been incorrectly installed by an uncertified worker. To the untrained person it may seem like a simple task, but understanding all aspects of the job and how it connects is critical to providing safe and reliable work.

Achieving a Certificate of Qualification in the electrical trade requires 9,000 hours of on the job training as well as three periods of in-class study, training and testing in Ontario’s community college system. As a final step, electricians have to pass rigorous licensing examinations.

An important public interest informs and sustains this process.

Amendments to the Ontario College of Trades and Apprenticeship Act made last year reaffirmed the mandate of the Ontario College of Trades to undertake real enforcement to protect the importance of certification and safety. The amendments directed the College to establish and publish a formal, transparent Compliance and Enforcement Policy.

The policy directs the College to enforce the licensing regime, enforce journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios, focus on the underground economy and protect young workers.

Twelve months later, the College continues to ignore its own policy.

Compulsory trades are compulsory for a reason — they are there to protect workers and the public, which must take priority over commercial interests.

If we want the best apprenticeship system, the best workers and the safest work environment in Ontario then standards must be high to reflect that. Our focus should be on protecting and promoting the value of certification and training.

Worker and public safety should not be compromised for the sake of a quick fix scheme to fill our skilled trades shortage. Ontarians deserve better.

James Barry is the executive chairman of the IBEW-Construction Council of Ontario. Send comments and Industry Perspectives column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.