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Union Leader: Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Program Overused, Apprenticeship Must Be Prioritized

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During the recent Skilled Trades Summit hosted by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum the COO of Canada’s Building Trades Unions, Bob Blakely, spoke about the issues facing the Canadian workforce and how changes can be made to the apprenticeship system to slow the country’s reliance on temporary foreign workers.  In the past 10 years Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program has tripled in size. Moreover, temporary has become somewhat of a misnomer considering many of those brought in have been working in Canada for the better part of a decade.  Now, with cries of a labour shortage — one which labour advocates think was forced on the country through overuse of programs like TFW — a recommitment to streamlining and improving the apprenticeship system of Canada is necessary to ensure Canadians have the opportunity to begin rewarding career paths.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this yet again, but for 20 years we’ve been preaching to you about how we need to recruit and train people,” Blakely said. “The unionized construction workforce is the same size now as it was 20 years ago. The demand for apprentices has almost doubled.”

Increasing the number of companies that take on apprentices is vital, Blakely says.  Currently, 81 percent of apprentices are trained by 18 percent of employers.

“People don’t train to capacity,” Blakely told the Daily Commercial News. “If there isn’t a job today, we won’t train to it.  If you don’t have a supply side solution, you get to where we are now.”

Blakely wants all companies using TFW’s to have a plan to transition to a Canadian workforce rather than acquiescing to the culture of temps.  He feels companies that do not maintain apprenticeship programs should not be allowed to bring TFW’s to Canada, a ‘Hire Canadian’ provision of sorts.   

One bright spot in the world of Canadian apprenticeship is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the premiers of the Atlantic provinces in May which harmonizes apprenticeship training and standards for 10 different trades.  As the Halifax Chronicle Herald reports, there are currently 1,200 apprentices in the construction electrical trades and close to 4,000 across the Atlantic region who will see fundamental changes which make it easier for them to complete their apprenticeship thanks to the MOU.

Kelly Regan, minister of labour and advanced education, touched on these changes in a recent interview:

Before this agreement, there were 13 separate apprenticeship regimes across the country.  Now the Atlantic provinces are beginning the process of harmonizing these … trades so that a cook can begin their training in Nova Scotia and they may end up in P.E.I. along the way and they know that (training) block A will be the same in Nova Scotia as it will be in P.E.I. or Newfoundland or New Brunswick.”

Another step in the right direction was the creation of the Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency, whose board members will include leaders from the trades.  The hope is to eliminate past ineffectiveness, such as classroom training sessions being held during peak construction season. This lead to low participation. Duncan Williams, president of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, was blunt in his assessment of training programs to date:

There was a complete breakdown in terms of how this program should be structured to suit the industry. … With all due respect to the folks in government, they don’t know the industry and they don’t know the pressures.”

Williams argues that the inclusion of more industry leaders will ensure more positive outcomes:
“Having industry perspective right there on a board to say, ‘OK, that’s a great idea, however, this is the peak season or this is the shoulder season, this is when we should put on training or we don’t need this many trades or we do need this many,’” Williams said. “It’s going to be a lot more real-time and responsiveness built into the system.”

The Nova Scotia Apprenticeship Agency is currently participating in a nationwide search for a CEO.  Current plans have the agency beginning operations on July 1st.  


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