05/05/2013 11:57 EDT | Updated 07/05/2013 05:12 EDT

Ontario College of Trades aims to serve public interest, faces some opponents

TORONTO - When Shweta Jacob desperately needed a plumber to fix a flooded washroom in her Toronto home she turned to Twitter and Facebook for recommendations.

"I didn't know where else to go," the 37-year-old said. "I just really wanted to find someone quick and reliable."

Her situation is exactly the kind the Ontario College of Trades wants to address.

Considered the first regulatory body for skilled trades in the country, the college has started registering members from 157 skilled trades. Customers can now search its online registry to see if the tradespeople they want to hire are certified and in good standing.

The college is also accepting consumer complaints, although it will only begin issuing fines and laying charges in June.

While it seems like a win for consumers, the college is also facing considerable opposition from a contingent of tradespeople who are opposed to the membership fees it imposes, which could result in a number of skilled workers boycotting the new body.

As it deals with some vocal critics, the college emphasizes that customers are its top priority.

"You're looking at an industry, in terms of the trade community, that really hasn't had any enforcement of any nature," said Ron Johnson, chair of the college's board of governors.

"It's a process that I think is ultimately going to lead to a higher level of consumer confidence in the trades. Legitimate tradespeople are finally going to get some protection of their certification standards."

What's significant is that the body is trying to style itself along the same lines as other regulatory professional colleges, with the aim of self-policing and promoting skilled trades.

"Every province has their eyes on Ontario to see how we do," said Johnson. "We're changing the way the trades are managed in Canada."

An enforcement team is being trained and will eventually have about 150 officers investigating complaints and cracking down on those working without necessary certifications, although those actions will be phased in.

"Over the next year or so it's really about an education process, where the public has to start understanding who we are and what we're all about, and tradespeople have to learn their obligations under the act," said Johnson.

The college takes its mandate from the Ontario College of Trades and Apprenticeship act passed in late 2009.

Under the college's rules, anyone licensed to practice a compulsory trade in Ontario — one which requires certification — automatically became a member of the college in April and appears on its public registry. They will have to pay a yearly membership fee of up to $120 to keep their certification valid. They previously paid $60 every three years to the province to maintain certification.

The college is also now responsible for issuing certificates of qualification, something which was previously handled by the government.

Those in a voluntary trade — which doesn't require mandatory licensing — who held a certificate of qualification prior to April 8 will hold it for life and are not automatically members of the college, but can chose to register with it for a fee.

Meanwhile, those who get a certificate of qualification for a voluntary trade after April 8 are now required to renew it annually with the college by paying a membership fee. They can opt out of being a member if they don't want a certificate.

Critics of the college's membership fees say those costs will eventually be passed on to consumers.

"When you put more barriers up to workers getting into our industry, that's going to raise the cost of everything that consumers want to buy from our industry," said Sean Reid, a spokesman for the Stop the Trade Tax campaign.

"Everything that this organization is trying to do — whether it's improving consumer protection, or promoting the trades — they're doing it by installing these grossly inflated and bloated bureaucracies."

The campaign, which emphasizes that it has no objection to protecting consumers' interests, says it's working on shoring up support to convince the government to do away with the college.

Reid added that the range of trades falling under the college's mandate will also lead to some members being underserved.

"It's not like the college of nurses, or teachers or physicians that have one occupation associated with this college," he said. "The notion that an institution a single bureaucracy can adequately represent the interests of horse groomers at the same time it represents the interests of electricians...is ludicrous."

Some disagree with that assessment though, arguing that having one body to deal with all customer complaints related to tradespeople is a good thing.

"It's an opportunity for some transparency within the murky world of skilled trades," said Henry Reiser, dean of the faculty of trades and technology at British Columbia's Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

According to Reiser, the Ontario college has potential but hasn't done a very good job at marketing itself to either the public or the tradespeople it now represents. The college has acknowledged it needs to ramp up its public relations but said it was being careful with its spending.

While some in other provinces will be eyeing Ontario's progress, Reiser said it remains to be seen if the college turns out to be a model for other to follow.

"The whole idea of trades being a professional body, that is what is unique about the Ontario model," he said. "The jury is certainly out on it and I think it needs time to see what happens with the dynamic and even if it survives."