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Apprenticeship ratios making the trades shortage worse

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The organized sector is making the trades shortage much worse than it should be. And qualified applicants, who want to work, can't get jobs.

By D. Brian Baker,


Custom Vac Limited,



Apprenticeship ratios were the main topic of discussion in Winnipeg two weeks ago on a prominent radio station’s morning show (CJOB’s RCR, hosted by Richard Cloutier). Heated discussions took place between the organized sector and non-organized sectors while a young well-spoken woman explained her plight to find entry-level employment. All she wanted was job as an apprentice electrician but could not find anyone to hire her even though all the companies where she applied had told her they wanted to hire her, but could not due to the ratios of 1 to 1.

Anyone in the mechanicals industry understands the demand for skilled workers is at an all-time high; Companies have been unable to solve these workplace shortage, causing many of them to turn work down. Recently, we heard of Alberta bringing in foreign workers who are being fast-tracked to become power engineers. And yet, at the same time this young woman on the radio in Winnipeg was explaining that she could not secure employment due to the ratio issue.

In Ottawa, citizen and immigration minister Jason Kenney has been supporting increasing the numbers of foreign workers and fast-tracking them into permanent jobs. What about individuals here in Canada who seek a better paying job for their families but cannot gain a foothold due to apprenticeship ratios? Of course, the organized sector raises the safety issue, making this their line in the sand. No one disagrees that the safety of workers is paramount. But this is a turf issue, mostly. Why do I say this? Because if they really cared about safety, the organized sector would look at the realities in the workplace and see what the rest of us see. The governments which control the apprenticeship system are also to blame for a lot of what is going on and has been happening.

Sadly, as this article is being written, a 30-year-old worker has just been electrocuted while working on a roof-top unit in Ottawa. Details are not available other than this worker was alone at the time of the incident.

In Manitoba, we once had provincial trade advisory committees (PTAC’s) and an Apprenticeship Board who had a good balanced matrix of members from urban, rural and remote areas; from organized, non-organized and publicly-owned firms; from large and small contractors working in residential, commercial and industrial construction; and from education. No one single sector or group could bully the othesr or push items forward. For a long time now, this has not been the case and for the most part the organized sector has ruled the roost, following the government’s agenda. The result is the system is worse now that anytime in past history.

The government took examinations away, shoving them over to the Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC) to manage. That went over like a rock, because no one knew anything about the examination process since the individual who had been doing this retired. This left individuals requiring testing when graduating in June to wait to challenge their exams in November or December. Some were given the wrong examinations and failed resulting in their loss of job or advancement. One of my students lost her job position because she failed the exam not once but twice until it was realized she was writing the wrong exam.

A fellow who came to me for tutoring after failing level 1 gas fitting and I was able to find out he was able to get into the new two year gas fitter program with less than 250 hours when he needed 1500. Today apprenticeship councillors have no control and no say. In fact, they have been given strict ‘verbal’ instruction as to what they will do and if they rock the boat, it’s the high seas for them which is why none of them will go on the record.

Some apprentices are as much as 16 months ahead in school from where their hours are and yet employers are having to paying the higher wage rates while unable to hire additional new entry level workers. Many companies have no idea when hiring these apprentices that they likely have not yet worked the required hours.

Apprenticeship was founded on the fact that 80% of their time is spent in the workplace on-the-job working under the direct supervision of a journeyperson and 20% of the time in class learning and that prior to the release to school they had to have worked the required hours.

When I was on the Manitoba Apprenticeship PTAC and Board later on I always raised the issue of this “direct supervision” and asked, “What does this mean?” No one ever wanted to deal with it. Well the organized sector may claim they adhere to the one-to-one ratios and I can agree so do others. What they do not do is actually have the apprentice work alongside in direct supervision of a Journeyperson. I know of individuals who are today Journeypersons and they did not work one day under a Journeyperson. Out of level one and/or pre-employment courses they were hired given a $45,000 truck filled with $30,000 of tools and inventory and given calls to run the same day. So, if safety is the real issue for Government and the organized sector why is this still happening?

One thing that we do in my own company is force our apprentices to work with various Journeypersons because it is the best way to build a long term employee and quite frankly it is the most costly as well. But, we do let our apprentices get out there more and by level 3 they do not need the same supervision or at least they have been trained to recognize their limitations and ask for help. But the system does not recognize this. Apprenticeship is a learning process for everyone. One could parallel this to raising young children who as we know require more attention. In fact, Manitoba announced smaller class sizes and more teachers to meet this need for school entry level children through the early development years. At the same time older kids are given more free rein and so goes life. So this begs the question, why can the ratios not be adjusted so that a Journeyperson could supervise more than one apprentice? The way it has been working has turned out a dismal number of really good Journeypersons because they have not been given the supervision they should have received. This whole mess needs to be placed on the table, taken out of the closet and dealt with.

We have councillors who have intervened and denied some apprentices as many as two years of hours because the companies they worked for did not have any Journeypersons on staff. These same companies are my competitors and no one is doing anything about them. Apprenticeship knows about these issues and does nothing about it. Why?

We once had competency checklists and they hit the garbage can and are no longer being used. When signing up on-line as an apprentice they still have to go down in person and submit two pieces of ID, so where is the savings and why was this taken away from the duties of the councillors?

The Government has initiated all kinds of programs and financial assistance programs to help increase apprenticeship numbers and they have done this but no one can hire them because of the ratios and so many companies operate outside the regulations because work has to be done and no one is going to do anything to you anyway, so life rolls along. In the rural areas they even offer business start-up money for young Journeypersons. The guy whose business has been there for 20+ years employing young people and working to build his business finds that at the end of 4 years his employee gets the Government to help him become his former employer’s competitor. In the small marketplace they now compete and one can argue this is good for business. At the same time how many young Journeypersons have both the business and technical skills they need to succeed?

The trades remain somewhat unfriendly and sexist to women entering the trades with some terrible stories coming from some of the women, this is unacceptable. My personal experience is that the mechanical trades are good for women and many of my students have gone on to become Power Engineers.

Manitoba has failed the apprenticeship system. Sure they doubled the numbers of apprentices, but they did nothing to build the infrastructure at the college to properly train them while in school. They at the same time took what was10-month pre-employment programs and reduced them to 5-month programs still issuing Level 1 credit. Some of the old 10-month refrigeration and air conditioning graduated did not even get lab time, so no to little hands-on. This is why the Government had to form A-West a place where struggling apprentices are sent for help with math, science and other subjects. Truth is that they are not being helped because I see them and talk with some who have gone there only to find support elsewhere.

Finally when I was on the apprenticeship board and compulsory trades were being designated it was all about education and training, NOT turf wars. But with the change in Government brought the new meaning to be protecting turf which is why today many are being told they can no longer hire general labour. This is wrong, young people deserve a real shot at working and earning a wage and being given serious consideration to receive and advancement and acceptance as an apprentice. But everyone must earn that right. We also must also recognize that business needs time to fully vet through the new hire through what is typically a 90 day probationary period to see if the fit is there. But Government wants business to sign the new hire up as an apprentice on day one. Why, if the new hire remains they can still receive their hours based on the start of their employment. The system does not need to be bogged down with potential new hires entering the system and then dropping out, unless of course you are concerned as the Government is in losing those registration fees


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19 Comments » for Apprenticeship ratios making the trades shortage worse
  1. Leo Tessier says:

    Hi There,

    As for Ontario the ratio is 3 journeyman for 1 apprentice. We have a growing elderly journeyman population that has an average age in the mid 50’s which means that retirement is just around the corner for these tradesman and nobody to replace them . There has been many articles about the subject but nothing is being done to the aging population of our trades. Incentives are great for the companies but we cannot hire the apprentices due to the ratio.

  2. CH says:

    That’s very interesting info, thanks for taking a risk and voicing your opinion.

    Here in Ontario, the new College of Trades is reviewing the ratios for various skilled trades. We are hoping they will reduce the overly restrictive 3 journeypersons:1 apprentice down to 1:1. I didn’t realize that even the 1:1 ratio wouldn’t be good enough.

    We have had recent experience with the skilled foreign workers program you talk about. We found that a fully qualified journeyperson from this program had less knowledge and experience with the Ontario Code than some of our first year apprentices! How is it possible he passed the CofQ challenge exam? But we had to pay him as a fully qualified tradesperson even though we couldn’t let him work alone.

    • Kyle says:

      Hey there , I found this article very interesting .
      I am currently working for a winnipeg based plumbing company , I am working out of town , they hired me as a labourer because I have absolutely no training or experience In the plumbing or pipe fitting trade , anyways i go to work every morning they tell me to run about 1200$ worth of pipe, send me out by myself to do it , I screw it up , I come back and they scream at me for doing it wrong …. We have 2 journeymen and 5 level one apprentices working on site , I have been there for 9 months and not ONCE have I worked with one of them nor have I seen them working on site , are trades screwed up or is it just my company ?

  3. Joe Greps says:

    Unfortunately the shortage of tradespeople is a myth.

    “There is a lot of talk about a shortage in the trades in Ontario, but we should be careful about making policy based on talk because it is uncertain how many jobs for skilled trades there will be in the future. Since 2008, jobs for tradespeople have decreased and the sector did not experience any shortages. In fact, employment for tradespeople decreased more rapidly than the number of tradespeople in the labour force: It is harder to find a job as a skilled tradesperson than it was four years ago.

    Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Ontario’s manufacturing and natural resource industries were significantly affected by the recession and the appreciation of the Canadian dollar. This led to massive layoffs in industries that employ tradespeople. This isn’t to say that there is no need for the trades. As the United States recuperates and our dollar devalues, we can expect increased economic activity in various sectors that hire tradespeople, but it is going to take time for jobs to materialize.”

    Some areas do have high demand but the issue is one of mobility, bill C-201 that would have given tradespeople the reasonable right to deduct the costs of hotel rooms and travelling expenses was rejected by the government this week that made clear they were more interested in tax collection than the fair treatment of workers.

  4. Greg says:

    What an interesting article very well written. I have been looking to do an apprenticeship for pipe fitter. What a joke I feel it’s a constant battle, first of all to get someone to reply to a email or phone call to answer some simple questions or provide some direction is impossible, to date i have had nothing returned. Went to Manitoba apprentice and sat for 2 hours only to get a women throw pamphlets and a few emails address at me and advise me that i should try to find a employer to take me on…really?? Then wanted me to say she great help.

    Guess I should just keep my $75,000 per yr office job even tho I’m absolutely miserable in and office punching numbers all day and leave the trades to the foreigners who are more likely to get hired and trained before me.

    But like allot of things in society everything has its ups and downs and sure nothing runs smoothly but it really go’s to crap when the Manitoba govt sinks its claws in. The only real thing that needs a over haul in our govt.

    Brian great article and please keep fighting for the trades and apprenticeships as we all need ppl like you.

    • Bob2 says:

      Stay in your job or look for something similar, the (trade) grass is NOT greener on the other side, sorry to say.

  5. Chris says:

    I agree with Greg with the difference, I’m one of the foreigners with about two year’s training as an apprentice. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to continue my trade qualification. Wherever I go I’m informed to “get a company to appoint you as an apprentice”. Good luck with that, as no one answers my emails. People that I call have no openings currently. Any government institution that is so boastful about how well they assist people in becoming trades people literally just throw a piece of paper at you and tell you to look for a job and then they feel very good about the excellent advice they gave you! Canadian government clearly doesn’t want the trades issue to be solved, otherwise something would’ve been done a long time ago. I find it extremely frustrating to not be able to qualify myself in a career that I know and have experience in.

  6. Mike says:

    I agree that something needs to be done by government. I finished a 10 month pre-employment course with one of the top marks of my class (over 90%). In the past 5 months I’ve applied at over 60 companies (most of them twice) in Manitoba without receiving a single reply. Now I’m in danger of becoming homeless because I can’t find a electrical apprentice job and unrelated companies don’t want to hire someone who spent the last year in college for a unrelated career.
    My decision to go to college is beginning to look like the worst choice I’ve ever made. If I was 18 and living with parents it wouldn’t be that big of deal but I’m 34 living buy myself so I’ve “invested” a lot of money just to try to get my foot in the door with no success.
    At least a better ratio will help more people get the experience they need and the shortage of journeymen, (which is only getting worse), will start to decline.

  7. Mitch says:

    The ratio change occurred because a while back a jman (journeyperson) had left an apprentice completely alone on a job site. And that apprentice later, died. This was one of the major reason for restructuring the rules. And because the apprentice to Jman ratio was so high apprentices weren’t receiving the proper training. 1-1, you can’t go wrong.

    Hardly any companies actually follow the ratio rules anyways.

    The industry is pushing for change or I should say the contractors b.c. of the labour shortage which is true but it’s mostly to do with money. The dollars that would be saved if they could restructure the ratio to 3-1 versus the safety and quality of the apprentices that get pumped out.

    Where you’re really off the mark is as follows. If an apprentice chooses to attend school when he or she knows they don’t meet the hourly requirement (say they’re 500 hours off) And that apprentice passes school, and has moved from level 2 to 3. The employer isn’t required to pay you level 3 rate until you’ve fulfilled those 500 as a level 2, First. VERY IMPORTANT THAT GETS CLEARED UP.

    You should be writing about the difficulties apprentices face trying to register for school and in particular the lack of spots in winnipeg. How the hell can afford to go to Brandon for 2 1/2 month because there’s no where else to go for school.

  8. Mitch says:

    Pre Employment Electrical is pumping out too many Level 1 for this market. And I feel bad for all the kids coming out of it and can’t find jobs. Trust me, in the long run having your teachers or contractors tell you to voice your opinion about a ratio change does nothing for you. The training you receiving 1-1 will be nothing like having a 3-1 or 4-1 ratio. Think about your career, your life. Getting a poke in residential is one thing but when you start working on big commerical jobs and you don’t know what your doing. It costs the employer, peoples patience and is sad situations “lives”

  9. Ryan says:

    This article is deeply saddening. I have recently just graduated a 2 year electrical program, in order to get some mandatory experience for the trade and I too am at the brink of becoming homeless or working at the grocery store. I am tired of being lied to and this to me seems like a government ploy to eventually monopolize the industry (unions). The next thing people will be saying is the only jobs I can get are in the union and that non unionized tradesmen don’t exist. They are strangling us out, don’t believe everything you hear. This isn’t about safety, it is about government monopolies and they are preparing to shut down men with dreams. They are doing this very carefully, in order for little to no resistance, until the day they pull the plug on master electricians and say they must work for a corporate check. Please don’t

    • Adam Smith says:

      Up in northern Alberta non-union has about 80% of all the work, at Fort Hills the ratio is about 95% non union with only about 5% of the work going union.
      Next year expect the industrial wages to drop from $47 to around $32 a hour, you can thank non union companies and CLAC for that and no their won’t be any extra work, just lower wages.
      The government is in fact very anti union and has been working very hard (with big business lobbying) to bust unions. Your a total idiot if you think the unions have been helped by the Government.
      Get your facts straight before you blame Unions for locking you out of a job.

  10. Elizabeth says:

    As an apprentice who can’t find work, I’m beginning to believe that the whole skilled trades shortage is a myth. Before starting the union program we were told of the shortage and that we’d be increasing our employ-ability a great deal. Toward the end of our course however they spoke bleakly about our likelihood of finding trades work. 4 months after my 5 months of school is over and I am working hard to find any work with no success. Grocery stores don’t want to hire apprentices either. I’m thinking that removing all of my tickets from my resume will actually make me more employable, in a more attainable job. The trades won’t keep me off the streets, hopefully the grocery store will.

    • Mindy says:

      The shortage is not a myth. It is for fully skilled workers, meaning journeymen. Yes all apprentices have a degree of skill, but it was never communicated that there is a shortage of Level 1 workers. Anyone can find out ahead of time how in-demand their trade is by looking for Level 1 jobs before they spend time and money investing in the career. For electrical there are almost too many level 1’s now. The supply will soon be greater than the demand in electrical.

  11. colin hesse says:

    Contractors use apprentices for cheap labour when all these people become journeyman they dont want them because they are to expensive. So they lay them off, As for ratios most contractors dont follow the rule anyway

  12. Adam Smith says:

    Flooding the trades with an over abundance of labor and driving down the wages is only good for big business. For the trades-person it is a good reason to leave the trades all together, others won’t have a choice.
    As a Master Journeyman Electrician I have found that in general that contractors are not looking for experienced Journeyman, they want to hire the cheapest labor that the can legally hire. They only employ the minimum amount of Journeymen that they are required to do so by the apprentice ratio laws.
    The problem is that there is many more Journeymen who now can’t find jobs because the contractors find Journeymen way too expensive and would prefer to hire cheap apprentices (or cheaper off shore foreign workers). So big business lobbies the Government and complain they need more apprentices and can’t hire them because of the ratios.
    But one thing that they won’t tell is that there is plenty of unemployed Journeymen electricians available that they can hire but don’t because they are too expensive.
    I have been out of work for over a year now, unable to find a job as an electrician in Calgary and not much hope in the future. Their is no jobs available around Calgary for Journeymen, but they are still hiring apprentices.
    There is no shortage of trades people, just a shortage of cheap disposable workers.
    Talk to a trades person if you want to know the real story, not some rich business tycoon whose is promoting what is best for himself and his stock owners.

  13. Chad says:

    Alberta is real bad for hiring entry level and First year Apprentices.
    If your a Journeyman your golden.
    The problem most companies will face with a shortage of Journeymen is having a Journeymen tell the employer what they are worth and not the other way around because they can easily get into business for themselves in certain trades or go to the highest bidder due to a shortage. That’s the importance of hiring entry level and get them started on an Apprenticeship 3 months later. Sometimes it’s the industry itself that creates it’s own shortages and not the Government because a company will take as many Journeymen and 3rd and second year Apprentices as possible leaving first year and entry level in the dark. It won’t work for them down the road. Shortages are looming in the near future.

  14. Chad says:

    One thing I do think is the Governments fault is relying on industry to hire entry level. I feel that a individual that is interested in a career of any trade should be able to go to college without an employer signing them up for an apprenticeship and trades schools should be more involved with in industry to set those individuals up with an employer to gain their hours and more hands on training not the other way around because in most cases it can be a lost cause for that individual to get hired on with no experience at all.

  15. Frank says:

    I’m an journeyman electrician in Winnipeg. 30 years experience. There are too many electricians. If you get laid off in the heavy commercial/industrial sector you will be unemployed for a long time. 6 months to a year. Everyone turns into a journeyman after 5 years. Then you need to have 2 apprentices. Those apprentices turn into journeyman. Now you need 4 apprentices. You get it, it never ends. This is just a myth to create fake jobs by the political parties in power. I pity the new millenials getting in the trades. Buy your drugs and alcohol now to help yourself later when your sitting at home depressed. Really. Go for the office jobs and the medical jobs. Apparently rumors going around they are quitting there jobs. Get it?

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