Aboriginals Face Barriers to Entering Skilled Trades

February 5, 2014 Updated: February 5, 2014

Last November, Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney made headlines when he urged Canadian provinces to dump antiquated apprenticeship ratios.

Apprenticeship ratios refer to the number of apprentices in training that can be employed relative to the number of ticketed journeypersons. For example many provinces limit employers from having more than one apprentice for ever three journeymen.

These obsolete regulations are preventing younger workers from entering the skilled trades.

This is unfortunate given that many of these skilled workers can come from within Canada, not abroad. Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are ready and willing to work in the skilled trades, but are hindered or prevented by these outdated regulations.

While traditionally governments have bolstered their workforce through immigration, it would be wise for them to engage with Canada’s Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal Canadians are the fastest growing demographic in the country.  They are also a young demographic. In 2011, the median age for Aboriginals was 26, whereas for the non-Aboriginal population, it was 41. This represents a unique opportunity to deal with an aging skilled workforce.  Members of the skilled trades workforce are older than the members of the workforce as a whole are. Thus, shortages will worsen if new workers do not replace those who retire.

Sadly, unemployment is a typical condition for many Aboriginal communities. While the national average is 7.1 percent, for First Nations reserves, it is 23 percent.

According to one report by Statistics Canada, by the end of 2017, Aboriginal people of working age (15 and older) will number close to one million—about 3.4 per cent of the working-age population overall.

The new resource economy also presents a unique opportunity for young Aboriginal people trying to enter the skilled trades.

For example, the data shows that nearly 500 First Nation communities across Canada are at the heart of $300-billion in oil, gas, forestry, energy, and mining projects that are waiting to be developed.

The solution for Canada and for First Nations is for federal and provincial governments to engage Aboriginal communities to encourage their youth to enter the trades.

But first, governments need to deal with unnecessary burdens that needlessly prevent community members from entering in the first place.

The first, and probably the most significant, barrier is apprenticeship ratios.

In Canada’s constitutional system, the provinces have the power to regulate apprentice programs and entry into the trades. This means that there are 13 different certification and training requirements for entering the trades.

Fortunately, since 2000 most provinces have relaxed apprenticeship ratios. They have been reduced by provinces to one journey person to one apprentice (1:1) or even one journeyperson to up to three apprentices (1:3) as long as the apprentices are in their final year. Ontario is the only jurisdiction that retains the three journeypersons to one apprentice (3:1) ratio, and Ontario and Quebec have some of the highest ratios in the country.  Manitoba moved to a 1:1 ratio for most trades in 2006. Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador have gone further, moving toward a 1:2 ratio for most trades.

Studies have found that restrictive apprenticeship regulations, including apprenticeship ratios, adversely affect the labour market. Chambers of commerce have concluded that restrictive apprenticeship ratios are forcing many companies to lay off apprentices and leave apprenticeship positions vacant.

The answer is to further relax apprenticeship ratios. All provinces and territories should move toward a 1:2 ratio for most skilled trades. This would provide companies with the opportunity to hire sufficient workers to meet project demands but still limit new entrants, which ensures work for both journeypersons in the system and apprentices as they become certified. The current 1:1 ratio used in most provinces leaves too many contractors struggling to meet contract requirements. Employers generally do not want too many apprentices, as they are not as cost-effective as journeypersons are.

The next barrier faced by Aboriginal peoples is education. First Nations have one of the highest rates of non-completion of high school. This presents a problem when many of the trades require high school graduation, or advanced courses in particular subjects. One solution to this dilemma is for the establishment of an alternative method of achieving the Grade 12 requirement at the end of an apprenticeship rather than as an entry requirement. Another solution would be the creation of a skills-based entrance requirement for all skilled trades in the country.

Aboriginal peoples are an amazing pool of talent located right here. Governments only need to remove the unnecessary barriers that prevent Aboriginal youth, indeed all youth, from entering the skilled trades.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy who focuses on aboriginal matters.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.