By IAN ROSS
With governments at all levels forecasting a skilled trades shortage that could cripple the Canadian economy by 2006, Sault Ste. Marie has attempted to crank up production of its own home-grown trades- people.
A local training and industry consortium has launched a novel program that combines classroom study with on-the-job experience, effectively fast-tracking apprentices into the workforce.
The City, Sault College and the Canadian Steel Trade Employment Congress have combined with five major employers in town — Algoma Steel, Algoma Tubes, G.P. Flakeboard, Great Lakes Power and the Public Utilities Commission — plus organized labour, to form the Industrial Apprenticeship Trades Option program.
The aim is to close two of the largest labour gaps in the city by cranking out employable industrial electricians and millwright graduates with diplomas and valuable work experience. Students alternate between months of study and paid work with one of the industrial partners. Job offers are possible once the program has run its course.
“They’re earning and learning at the same time,” says program lead Danny Krmpotich, who holds a dual position as a labour market manager with Sault Ste. Marie’s Economic Development Corporation and Ontario Works.
Launched in May 2003, the program is expected to graduate 17 mechanical technicians and 19 electrical technicians this spring.
The student-apprentices are not bound to their employer, but the thinking is if they are trained locally, they are more likely to stay in their hometown or reside in Northern Ontario.
The program will also place future tradespeople into the workplace in a fraction of the time.
Under the program, an industrial electrician’s apprenticeship time has been reduced from four years, seven months to three years, four months.
Trades recruitment and replacement remains a big issue in the Canadian steel industry. Algoma Steel expects to replace half its workforce in the next five to seven years, says Jack McGoldrick, human resources project manager with the Canadian Steel Trade Employment Congress.
The average age of an Algoma Steel tradesperson is 47.
Big companies like Algoma Steel have been insulated from the trades shortage by years of downsizing, he says, but the crunch is coming.
Modelled after a successful program he helped create between Dofasco and Mohawk College in the mid-1990s, McGoldrick believes the Trades Options program can be a “model of the future” for small- to medium-sized communities, to keep young people at home.
“If people get apprenticeship and trades training from larger cities, they’ll never come back. Smaller communities will always be a disadvantage to recruit kids. The solution is to create them locally.”
McGoldrick says in the traditional apprenticeship system, students must complete three and four years of training and roughly 9,000 hours of apprenticeship training before they become a certified tradesperson.
Under the industry-driven program, however, students graduate faster with 1,800 hours under their belts.
A lack of incentive has been holding back small to medium-sized companies from using apprentices in the past.
Krmpotich says the Ontario Government’s $5,000 tax credit to take on apprentices is only a “drop in the bucket” in covering training costs.
In the past, a graduating student had to find their own employer and in many cases companies were reluctant to do so because of liability issues and the costs associated with training an apprentice.
With no major government incentives to defray training costs, small companies are unwilling to spend money on training, only to see apprentices leave for better-paying jobs elsewhere.
That’s the case for fast-growing companies like Algoma Tubes, makers of seamless steel tubes for the booming oil and gas exploration market.
Losing tradespeople to retirement or better-paying employers is causing “undue hardship” with staffing shortages, says industrial relations co-ordinator Peter Weiss.
“Just a week ago, the question was how are we going to keep the mill running with electricians because we had lost five in two weeks.”
With an average tradesperson age of 35, the 476-employee company is desperately searching for the right mix of youth and experience workers.
To fill the gap, they are pursuing skilled retirees from Algoma Steel, who likely only stay on the job for two or three years.
The company has six apprentices working on site and has spent $250,000 since last fall training them, But there is no guarantee they will ever work there, according to the company.
All say the existing apprenticeship program in Ontario needs to be overhauled, and government needs to chip in.
“It takes a while for that individual (apprentice) to get up the learning curve and start actually providing some value for the company,” says Algoma Steel spokesperson Brenda Stenta, “and it would be economical if the program had some additional incentives.”