Skills and Safety Matter

Skills and Safety MatterOriginally printed in Electrical Business Magazine, February 2020 print edition.

Industry shows unprecedented unity against Ontario’s plan to create portable trades. By Kavita Sabharwal-Chomiuk.

Last year, the Ontario government launched Bill 100, Protecting What Matters Most Act (Budget Measures) 2019, an omnibus legislation that includes Schedule 40, Modernizing the Skilled Trades and Apprenticeship Act. Bill 100 passed third reading and received Royal Assent on May 29, 2019.

Bill 100, Schedule 40’s proposed reforms include replacing the existing scope of practice for a trade with a policy issued by the Minister that will describe the activities of the trade; and allowing certain activities of the trade to be restricted.

Following the launch of Bill 100, Schedule 40, both management and labour representatives in the electrical industry displayed an unprecedented show of unity in reacting to the statute, which the industry saw as compromising the trade.

The new regulatory framework introduced a new skill set model that would allow anyone to perform certain elements of work that are currently within the scope of a restricted trade. The consequences of these changes for the electrical trade could be significant, endangering both workers and the public.

James Barry, executive secretary treasurer to the IBEW CCO, and Graeme Aitken, executive director of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO), agreed that a thoughtful and effective strategy was needed to address this issue.

“We felt it was important to work with government to educate them about our trade and to do so with a strong, united voice,” said Barry, who approached representatives from both CLAC and OEL to join the cause. “They agreed to work with us to create a fact-based briefing paper that would outline the complexities of the electrical trade and why this new framework would not work. The end result was a consistent message to government from virtually all the major stakeholders in our industry.”

The report, called Skills and Safety Matter, has been presented to several cabinet ministers in government and has been followed by a series of meetings, roundtables and tours of training centres. All four groups agreed it was the first time in history that both employers and labourers in the electrical trade had been so united.

The report was a way to help government understand the complexities of the electrical trade and why the current scope of practice is critical to ensuring electrical work is done safely and correctly in Ontario, noted Aitken.

“They needed to understand that skills and training do matter. Electrical work is complex and dangerous, which is why we needed them to understand that we must maintain high standards for training,” explained Barry. “As the voice of the industry, we needed to ensure that worker and public safety, as well as the electrical trade, are preserved.”

“What we wanted to do, ultimately, is to work with them on putting together a system that we can all look back on 20 years from now, and say, ‘we got that right’. We want a system that’s going to stand the test of time, that’s going to be flexible enough that economic cycles won’t impact it, that is adaptable enough to work around new technologies that arise, while at the same time ensuring that Ontario produces the highest skilled and safest electricians,” added Aitken.

While the industry is still waiting to see what the government plans to do, there have been strong signals they are listening, particularly from Monte McNaughton, Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, who has been reaching out to a broad range of skilled trades representatives.

“He is the first Minister I have worked with in decades to show such an interest in learning about the trades and is really doing what is right for the province. Without a doubt, his initial response has been positive, but we still have a lot of work to be done to get this right,” said Barry.

“I believe there are members of government who were impressed that we took a collaborative approach, that we went to them with a unified voice and we came armed with the facts. Specifically, Minister McNaughton was very quick to react. He appears to be taking our advice seriously and truly trying to learn more about skilled trades so he can make an informed decision,” added Sherri Haigh, director of marketing and new business development for the Joint Electrical Promotion Plan.

Aitken agreed, nothing there appears to be a strong indication that government is listening and wants to work with the industry. “I think shifting over the skills portion to the Ministry of Labour was a huge signal that there’s an understanding that we can’t lump all education under the same umbrella,” he said. “There’s something different about construction education. It also appears that the examination of going towards a skill set model and looking at skills sets that are common across trades has been abandoned. And that is also a strong and encouraging indicator that there’s an understanding of what is required.”

Barry added that Minister McNaughton also recently announced plans to reinstate a construction advisory council in an effort to get input from key players in the industry. “The test will be when there is actually some solid confirmation that they’re going to maintain the scope of practice and uphold the Red Seal. We’re still waiting for that,” said Barry.

“Sometimes work slows down a little bit and we want to be certain that those people can travel across the country, so that makes the Red Seal extremely important,” added Aitken. “If you’re not demanding that people get Red Seal, then arguably, you’re creating a lesser electrician in the province of Ontario, compared to the rest of the country.”

While the government continues to review the Skills and Safety Matter report, Barry and Aitken are busy building on that momentum with another report on what a proper regulatory framework could look like.

“I believe our role is more than just educating; we also need to help with the solutions. We are the ones who work in the trade and it should be on us to help the government create a system that works for everyone,” said Barry.

According to Aitken, ECAO’s most pressing concern is maintaining the integrity of the electrical trade. “There is an overall safety issue: people that don’t understand the entirety of an electrical system shouldn’t being installing any parts of that system. If unskilled, unknowledgeable persons are installing portions of electrical systems, our members would be in a dangerous position following up on such unskilled installations; whether completing the installation, repairing/replacing the work, or adding to the system.”

He also noted that his contractors are often put in the position of competing with companies that are using unskilled individuals to complete electrical work, which can be quite difficult because unlicensed workers haven’t paid for training or licensing, and therefore, tend to charge clients less.

When a new model is finally created, Barry says it will be important that it includes a system to deal with compliance of the rules. “There has to be qualified inspectors going to worksites to address the underground economy and ensure qualified people are doing the electrical work. Otherwise, you can have all the legislation you want, but it won’t mean anything. The public and workers will be at risk.”