Training & Education
Will Ontario’s latest government consultation on youth and skilled trades change anything?
“In all the years we’ve been doing these kinds of reports, the bureaucrats always get involved, and they just follow the same old story [...] It’ll be the same old, same old... and go nowhere.”
By Anthony Capkun
July 6, 2021 – In the fall of 2020, Ontario appointed three advisors to help attract youth to the trades. In fact, Electrical Business Magazine interviewed Jennifer Green, Adam Melnick and Andrew Pariser to learn more about their mandate.
Mustered by the Minister of Labour, Training & Skills Development, Monte McNaughton, the trio will interview and gather feedback from “parents, educators, training facilities, colleges, and employers (big, small and medium)” as part of a “very robust consultation process”.
Among the people they interviewed are the five men you’re about to meet below, four of whom are members of the Ontario Electrical League, and one is the OEL’s president. Not one of them is optimistic about the outcome from the youth advisors’ report to the government.
They’ve seen this before, and it always ends the same way… nothing changes.
(That’s not a statement on the youth advisors themselves. In fact, my panel was very complimentary about them, saying the youth advisors were attentive and interested, and asked a lot of questions.)
Rather than dismiss the government’s initiative outright and call it a day, I gathered these professionals together for a frank discussion to understand why they feel the initiative is doomed to fail and, maybe, get to the root(s) of the problem in attracting youth to the skilled trades. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to ask them what they would do differently.
My panel included: Dave Ackison, president, Ackison Electric; Ron Bergeron, former owner, Bergeron Electric Ltd.; Cameron Hann, president, Jestek Electric Ltd.; Bruce Whitside, president, BM Whitside Electrical Contracting Ltd.; and Stephen Sell, OEL.
Shop class, university and systemic stigma
Working off the assumption these things don’t happen overnight, I started the conversation by asking my panel how we—as a society—dropped the ball with regard to attracting youth to the skilled trades in the first place.
Not surprisingly, the elimination (if not abolition) of shop class came to the surface.
“The ball was dropped in our schools when we got rid of shop class,” Cameron said, noting it was shop class that piqued his interest in electrical in the first place. “Sure, you may have co-op placements, but that’s just scratching the surface for kids who have potential.”
Cameron added that a shop class can expose youth to other roles within the skilled trades. “In the electrical trade, there’s many things you could do, like becoming an estimator… although, to be honest, most good estimators were electricians first.”
Dave is thankful he got to experience shop class as a youth, “because high school was a necessary evil, for sure, but the shop classes were the best part”.
“Even when a school does have a shop class, it’s not a tradesperson teaching it,” Stephen pointed out. “Meantime, our education system—which should promote the trades—doesn’t really have anyone teaching who came from the trades. They all went through a university stream, and it’s human nature to teach and promote what you know.”
It makes sense: if you don’t know the trades, you’re not going to promote them to your students.
So why don’t we have more tradespeople teaching in our high schools? Ron pointed to teacher pay scales, saying they are based primarily on university degrees/credentials. “More degrees, more money,” Ron said. “Craftspersons do not have university credentials, which puts them at the bottom of the scale should they wish to teach.”
“Another thing that’s not promoted or shared enough is the fact that tradespeople, in general, are more successful than a lot of people with university degrees,” said Stephen proudly. “Yet most parents look at the trades as a secondary avenue, not the primary avenue, for success.”
Cameron agrees the trades should be considered a primary avenue. “While construction may be considered a blue collar job, my electricians make $90K a year. That’s not chump change and, in fact, I wouldn’t even call Electrician a trade: I want to call it a profession, because that’s what it is.”
Ron, meantime, tackled the root of shop class elimination. “It’s a societal thing… the mentality that, if you’re smart, you go to university,” Ron said. Bruce agrees there is a stigma associated with shop class students, saying “I’ve certainly seen it during my time in school”.
“I was fortunate in that I was in a technical academic stream, and I took shop and really enjoyed it. But there was that stigma, because I wasn’t on the university path, and this stigma continues today,” Bruce said.
“Just like Music, History, Languages, etc., shop classes existed to give students a taste of everything,” said Ron. “Then they started eliminating shop classes, and today we complain about too few youths choosing to get into the skilled trades. Our educators didn’t think about how their actions would affect our present.”
There’s been a lot of finger-pointing at our education system so far, I noted to my panel, but don’t parents also have a huge influence on their kids’ schooling? Is it fair to say, I asked them, that parents are also part of our problem in attracting youth to the trades?
“We need to address the problem of passing everyone,” Ron said, meaning, giving all students passing grades. “In the past, if you got a failing grade at school, your parents were upset with you; nowadays, they’re upset with the teacher! Parents have become increasingly ‘meddling’, and part of that meddling involves keeping their kids on a university track.”
The biggest consequence? “A lack of work ethic,” says Ron. “After all, why make the effort when it’s always been given to you? And then everyone is surprised when youth fail at work; when we—the employers—fail them, if needed. If we don’t, people could be hurt or killed, and clients won’t pay for poor work.
“Regardless of whether I wanted to become one, I could never become a pilot, because I can’t fit in the cockpit,” Cameron said, smiling. “Everyone has a place they were meant to be… or not be. And the best way to expose kids to all of these things is in high school; they can do co-op, they can do a course on woodworking, whatever!”
And if a kid wants to build birdhouses for a living? “Then great. We also need people who know how to make birdhouses,” Cameron said.
“I once compared the hours it takes get your ticket versus a Master’s degree,” Stephen mused. “By the time you’re a tradesperson, you’ve put in 9000 hours. Most Master’s degrees don’t take that long. So journeymen put in the equivalent of at least a Master’s degree to get their licence, and that needs to become part of the narrative.”
The report to nowhere
I then turned my panel’s attention to the report that will be produced by the three youth advisors, and asked them whether they were hopeful about the results.
“No, nothing will change,” Bruce said. “I have a gut feeling [the Ministry of Labour, Training & Skills Development] is going to try, but I think they’re going to be overridden because they don’t want to ruffle any feathers in the education system or the political system.”
“In all the years we’ve been doing these kinds of reports, the bureaucrats always get involved, and they just follow the same old story,” Dave said. “I don’t think anything will change. It’ll be the same old, same old… and go nowhere.”
“Trying to stay positive is tough,” Cameron admitted. “I’m feeling optimistic but doubtful, all at the same time.” He added that “fixing” this issue is “taking way too long”, despite a supposed sense of urgency. “I am glad, however, to see the push to get women into the trades. I’ve had a couple of female electricians, and they were some of my best employees.”
As for where the report is going to end up, Stephen highlighted an important distinction (problem?):
“While the youth advisors were appointed by the Ministry of Labour, Training & Skills Development, everything we’ve been talking about today involves the Ministry of Education. So it’s not even the same ministry that would be responsible for implementing these recommendations. So that’s a challenge right off the bat: you’ve got one ministry coming forward with recommendations, but it’s another ministry that’s tasked with implementing. And where will those recommendations end up in that minister’s priorities?
If it were up to you?
I convened this panel to better understand cause and effect, and the barriers to change, and to explore solutions in the context of attracting youth to the trades. So I asked my panel the “If it were up to you” question. You are now the government: you make the decisions, you chart the path forward. How would you change our education system? Where would you spend taxpayer dollars? What would you do differently?
Not surprisingly, they all feel shop classes need to be reintroduced across all our high schools. “And maybe Grades 9 or 10 could be a ‘shop year’ for some students, and we could reintroduce an extra year (Grade 13) to give students more exposure,” Bruce suggested.
Stephen said he was fortunate enough to sit in on two different consultations. For the second one, he brought a Grade 8 student into the consultation so the youth advisors could speak directly with them.
“One of the things to come out of that conversation was this: when we do presentations in schools about the trades—which, really, should start by Grade 7—we end up talking only about the construction trades. We need to start talking about all the skilled trades, not just construction.”
“The trades themselves have to get more involved in the education system; we need to get into the schools and talk to students, and see how we can help out in the shops,” Bruce continued. “So, spend money on opening up those shop classes and hiring shop teachers who have worked in the trades. And support sponsors who will take kids from Grades 7 and 8 to the jobsite.”
“We have a problem in our rural areas, where the apprenticeship programs that do exist just don’t work,” Bruce noted. “I can’t take a student from our local high school to one of our jobs because we don’t work in our area; we’re working a long distance away. So for a student to join us, they would be travelling for half of that time.”
Cameron would take half of his budget and put it toward shop classes in high schools. “The other half would go to the colleges so we can push through apprentices in a proper, timely manner, so they don’t fall through the cracks,” he added. “And not just for Electrical. We’re a little biased here, but there’s also Mechanical, Plumbing, Automotive, and so on. And start spending money on marketing these careers as Professions, not Trades.”
“But the biggest thing we have to do is to not undersell what we have to offer as contractors… as an industry,” Cameron insisted.
Dave is a little less magnanimous. “Oh, I would fire five or six of the top bureaucrats in government, and put in people who think properly about education and training, and are willing to speak up and move forward,” he said. “And I would spend a lot of money on the high schools and introduce the trade system throughout, but also on the colleges, so they can upgrade and teach a greater variety of courses… not just courses they can sell.”
“We can’t expect a quality tradesperson to teach a shop class for half his normal wages, so we need to invest in hiring the right teachers,” Ron said, adding, “The other half [of my budget] would go toward the open shop firms that are actually doing the hiring and training.”
Ron explained it takes about 10 years to transform an apprentice into what he would call a “top gun” journeyman, “but there’s been no recognition of all the open shop firms who hire and train the majority of apprentices… some 80%, I think. The open shops need assistance as they train up the next generation”.
“One in five employers train apprentices,” Stephen pointed out. “How do we get the other four involved in the training system. Remember, employers are training organizations, as well, and that gets lost in the narrative. It’s, like, 80% to 85% of your training program.”
“Attracting youth to the trades is one piece of the puzzle, but consider the challenge the trades experience as a whole with three different ministries,” Stephen reiterated. “Skilled trades fall under the Ministry of Labour, Training & Skills Development; education under the Ministry of Education; and practical apprenticeship is delivered under the Ministry of Colleges & Universities. Three different ministries for one trade!”
“In electrical, we don’t look at just the receptacle,” said Ron by way of comparison. “We look at the wiring, the breaker… the entire system. And we need to look at the entire education system the same way.”