Trades Education in BC
The Role of the Skilled Trades
Trades and apprenticeship programs in British Columbia train skilled workers in disciplines ranging from welding to hairdressing. They are a vital component to the broader post-secondary education system in BC.
In the broader economy, comprehensive trades training contributes to labour mobility, higher wages for skilled workers, and a substantial return to employers who rely on skilled labour to grow their business.
Trades Education Governance
Trades training is overseen by the Industry Training Authority (ITA), a Crown agency with a board appointed by the BC Government and governed by the Industry Training Authority Act. The ITA reports to the BC Government under a Shared Letter of Expectation. The ITA board is responsible for strategic planning, training standards, and curriculum programming.
Post-secondary institutions in BC that offer trades programs receive funding directly from the ITA each year.
The ITA also oversees sector-specific Industry Training Organizations (ITOs). Sector ITOs (eg. Automotive Training Standards Organization) are employer-established bodies that have responsibility for program changes to the trades programs in their respective disciplines.
Trades Education in 2013
In BC, two kinds of credentials are awarded to students completing trades training: a Certificate of Apprenticeship and a Certificate of Qualification (aka “a ticket”). During apprenticeship, trades students must complete an established number of work-hours with employers under the supervision of a journeyperson.
In 2009, BC granted 7,179 Certificates of Qualification.
The current trades governance structure, the ITA, was established in 2004. As opposed to being totally controlled by employer interests today, the previous incarnation of the ITA (known then as the Industry Training and Apprenticeship Commission) was considerably more balanced in it’s approach, and recognized trade unions and other stakeholders as equal partners at the highest levels.
The unbalanced ITA structure put in place by the Gordon Campbell government has distorted policy decisions in ways that—while meeting the short-term priorities of some businesses—ultimately undermine the quality of training.
De-Skilling the Workforce
One of the most radical changes to trades training in British Columbia is a process known as “modularization”. Under modularization, full-scope trades are broken down into an array of sub-trades for specific tasks (sometimes even company-specific). For example, instead of offering a comprehensive trades course for carpentry, the ITA has created short-run courses for students to get a certificate in framing.
Reducing the scope of a tradesperson’s skills both enables employers to pay lower wages and makes skilled workers less mobile and more sensitive to changes in the labour market. Workers eligible for training under Employment Insurance only qualify for the most basic training, so as entry level trades become less comprehensive, so does EI re-training.
Instead of a full complement of skills that leads to a career, job security or at least mobility, and a pension, modularization is more likely to generate qualifications for seasonal or part-time work, or perhaps endlessly returning to training programs to add more task-based skills. Over time, modularization will also erode the supply of qualified journeypersons to mentor the next generation’s apprentices.
The Role of Students, Public Institutions, and Workers
As mentioned, the ITA board excludes tradespeople, instructors, and students. The shift towards a singular focus on the short-term concerns of employers has turned public post-secondary institutions “from a position of stakeholder to one of service provider.”
A governance structure that ignores the expertise of teachers has hurt students. Without input from institutions, the ITA and ITOs have made decisions unilaterally and left institutions to accommodate changes in program duration without any consideration of how to do the same training with less time and less funding.
The ITA model introduced in 2004 is considerably more deregulated and decentralized than previous models. As a result, prospective students receive very little counseling (200 counselors, staff, and administration were laid off in 2002) and are left to navigate a complicated, piecemeal system themselves. Employer self-regulation means apprentices are left to negotiate with employers about support and fulfilling course requirements.
The new course charted by the BC government has also increased the role of private training schools. Since 2005, the number of respondents to the BC Apprenticeship Student Outcomes Survey from private colleges has increased 250 percent.
In the 2006 provincial government introduced tax credit for employers who take on apprentices, ensuring that public funding would go to private institutions (or for-profit spin offs of some public colleges).
Despite cutbacks to public post-secondary institutions making it more difficult to offer world-class programs, a large share of the $90 million allocated to the tax credit would likely go to employers who would have taken on apprentices regardless of the new incentive.
The tax credits and modularization of full-scope trades is also re-shaping public institutions. Northwest Community College, for example, has created small spin-off programs that are essentially publicly-funded training extensions of for-profit companies in the area. The curriculum is not approved by the NWCC Education Council, instructors are not members of the NWCC Faculty Association, students are not members of the students’ union, and tuition fees are cost-recovery (eg. pipeline construction: 15 days for $1,750).
In the latest BC Apprenticeship Student Outcomes Survey, the ITA has tracked a surprising growth in unemployment among former apprentices, up 8 percent between 2008 and 2010.
The ITA is tasked with addressing a skills shortage yet unemployment is rising and modularization is creating a larger pool of under-skilled workers who have little ability to utilize their skill set to seek employment, either in BC or elsewhere.
“Pink Trades”: Women in Skilled Trades
Historically, the trades have not been a very welcoming place for women. While thousands of men were fighting in World War II, women demonstrated that they were more than capable at filling the role of tradesperson on the factory floor. Yet in 2011, only 4% of the Apprenticeship Student Outcome Survey respondents were women.
In addition to a virtually all-male classroom/shop floor in most trades, those trades where women are better represented—the so-called “pink trades”—are often the first to be cut back when funding is short.
The pink trades are also correlated with lower wages. Trade-by-trade data is not readily available for British Columbia, but in Saskatchewan, women account for 38% of Cook apprentices; 59% of Electronics Assemblers; 67% of Food and Beverage Person apprentices; 86% of Guest Services Representatives; and 97% of Hairstylists.
Conclusion & Recommendations
Restructuring of the Industry Training Authority is needed to ensure continued uptake and value in trades and apprenticeship training in British Columbia. Also, worker and student representation will balance the decision-making and keep full scope trades education a priority. Moving the ITA back under the oversight of the Ministry of Advanced Education will also help make education a key priority for trades program development.
Further, proper funding is needed to maintain and enhance the quality of trades programs. Without stable funding BC will face a serious shortage of workers with a comprehensive range of skills.