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Apprenticeship ratios a struggle for Ontario contractors

While he faces many difficulties in growing his contracting firm, Kenora’s Gregg Bowman says that Ontario’s restrictive apprenticeship ratios in particular are choking his ability to expand.

While he faces many difficulties in growing his contracting firm, Kenora’s Gregg Bowman says that Ontario’s restrictive apprenticeship ratios in particular are choking his ability to expand.

“It’s a massive restriction for guys like me,” says Bowman, who has led the long-time family-owned Bowman Electric for the last 12 years.

“The people in Ottawa need to recognize what this means and that it needs to change.”

Across Canada, provincial governments require that businesses have a set number of journeymen on hand for every apprentice that is to be trained. For most Ontario trades, this typically means a ratio of three to one, or three journeymen for each apprentice.

However, given the worsening shortage of skilled labour throughout the province, many businesses -- including Bowman Electric -- are struggling just to stay staffed. This puts considerable strain on being able to remain in business, let alone maintain the staff ratios needed to bring new apprentices into the fold, he says.

As a result, the influx of new apprentices into both the individual business and the workforce in general is being severely hampered, he argues.

He points to his own business as a key example, estimating that he’s already turning down 200 people a year interested in signing up as apprentices. 

Part of the problem are some large corporations who have no apprenticeship programs but often require journeymen.  This means that these individuals are often poached rather than brought up through the ranks as an apprentice, placing even further strain on the ability of small business to maintain staff.

For Bowman, this has become a particularly big problem in the last year as the mining and oil industries poached his journeymen, bringing his staff levels from 25 to 14.

The idea of changing apprenticeship ratios isn’t without recent precedent. Last fall, the provincial government quietly changed the ratio of journeyman-to-apprentice ratio for brick and stone masons from five-to-one to three-to-one. 

Similarly, workers in the architectural glass and metal trade, such as construction boilermakers and ironworkers, also saw a change from four-to-one to two-to-one.  All other trades, however, remain unchanged.

Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions in Canada which still features ratios beyond one-to-one. In British Columbia, apprenticeship ratios have been relaxed entirely in some sectors in light of the run up to the 2010 Olympic Games.

Conversely, Ontario’s restrictions have helped to contribute to the ongoing shortages in numerous industries across Ontario, argues Judith Andrew, Ontario vice president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

A study recently released by the CFIB has shown that long-term vacancy rates in many businesses across Canada have continued to rise in recent years. Ontario was no exception, featuring a rise across all sectors in 2007, from 2.6 per cent to 3.5 per cent; this matches the national trend, where the percentage of long-term vacancies rose from 3.6 to 4.4 per cent. 

The government’s ongoing push to encourage youth to take up trades is one way of solving the problem, Andrew says, though the ratio issue is hampering the growth curve.

Members of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce agreed, with 360 members indicating in a recent survey that ratios represent a significant barrier in bringing higher numbers of apprentices into the fold.

Andrew also points to a lack of transparency on the provincial government’s advisory boards as being part of the problem in moving forward on ratio changes.

“Nobody knows about their recommendations, and they tend to be dominated by the big unions and big business, so the small business perspective isn’t well represented there,” says Andrew. “Of course, apprentices who are trying to find a position aren’t represented there either.”

One person who’s not necessarily sold on the idea is Ron Martin, executive director of the Sudbury Construction Association.  

While he agrees that the ratio for some trades should likely be altered, he hesitates to pinpoint any particular trade as needing a change. Instead, he argues that the determination of the proper ratio should ultimately come down to the individual sectors.

“Nobody knows better than an actual pipefitter how many apprentices are appropriate for a pipefitting firm,” Martin says.

In fact, while agreeing that the impending shortage of workers is indeed a concern, Martin says the solution should not necessarily be to adjust apprenticeship ratios. Instead, decision-makers and legislators should look at the broader picture when it comes to long-term training rather than looking to ratios as a “knee-jerk” means of solving labour problems, he says.