Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s move to fire all 105 members of the province’s College of Trades came less than a week after the government unveiled its legislative agenda in the legislature. That agenda included the creation of an Omicron — a paid apprenticeship program that will be overseen by the government and pay $30,000 for new apprentices to train in building trades and other occupations. In the first year the government would spend more than $600 million on the program, according to a Toronto Star article, which projects the total cost over five years will be more than $900 million.
This was not just a symbolic move. I know one recent grad from a local college who is due to start working on Monday as a refrigerator mechanic; if the program were not in place, it would have been a red flag in his job search. The Omicron is designed to make Ontario’s historically poor results in workforce training really glaring. The province has managed to remain a leader in education, particularly in primary and secondary school. For decades, Ontario has been the innovation leader in math, science and other critical areas — but it has simply failed to invest in training that takes advantage of those skills.
And Ontario has lead the Canadian provinces in skills development funding for trade and other technical skills training. It was not until we were able to use subsidies to pay for the full cost of training students, that we were able to produce as many qualified workers as we have. The federal government made great strides in forging this program in the 1970s and has again advanced it in the early 2000s. It should not be that way: the provinces have mismanaged a very good system.
And not only have the provinces failed, they have politicized it. Everyone is keen to fix the apprenticeship training system because they know that it has not gone as well as expected. At the same time, every province has a known problem, and they all try to solve it with a scheme the same way we have in Canada.
There are clear differences between Ontario and the other provinces in this regard. Part of that difference is that we have one-size-fits-all apprenticeship programs. That system is not just the responsibility of the federal government. It affects municipalities and school boards, and it makes no sense that this much government money is wasted on non-existent programs.
Ontario also has done things that other provinces — and maybe even the federal government — should follow. In the last six months, Ontario launched numerous pilot projects aimed at boosting the number of “ready-to-work” tradespeople. Some of these have taken more than a decade and a half to create; others are a direct result of the Omicron’s implementation.
The employment of apprentices has shot up in the first half of this year. The only way that this would happen without the Omicron is if those have poured millions into a program that absolutely nothing works in.
For example, last year, 20 percent of builders in Ontario claimed that they would have had no problem finding apprentices this summer. Now they have to start training for next summer, with people who will be ineligible to get to that point. Other apprenticeship programs have shown Ontario builders that you need more than eight hours of training to properly do a single task. Why build a house when you can hire a builder who does it all?
This is just the beginning of the Omicron, and there are certainly problems to be worked out. This could easily be a model for all other provinces.
I think that people everywhere should see the contrast between Ford’s and Trudeau’s economies and be encouraged that we are not just going to lead this country in delivering a stronger economy; we will do it through our programs for the broader population, and not just to a select group.