A major theme of Thursday's federal budget was "connecting Canadians with available jobs." And for good reason: Canada faces a major shortage of skilled tradespeople, and if no action is taken, this shortage will only grow in the future as the population ages. Indeed, the budget cited the example of the construction sector, which alone is projecting a need for 319,000 new workers. A shortage of skilled tradespeople limits economic growth across the country.
The federal government's 2013 budget contained two significant initiatives designed to address this issue. The first was the creation of a new training initiative, the Canada Job Grant, and the second was the announcement of a new infrastructure program, the Building Canada Plan.
Merit Canada strongly supports both of these initiatives as they will contribute to economic growth and job creation in Canada's construction sector. However, in order for taxpayers to receive the best value for their money on these initiatives a significant amount of behind the scenes but critical work needs to be done by our provinces and municipalities.
Merit provincial associations spend millions of dollars annually on apprenticeship tuition refunds, scholarships and the delivery of supervisory, safety and pre-employment training. It is also important to note that in Alberta, open shop contractors do the majority of apprenticeship training and about 80% of that is on-the-job training.
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Unfortunately, in many provinces the regulatory environment around apprenticeships is significantly shrinking access to training opportunities. For example many provinces have overly restrictive apprentice-to-journeyman ratios, effectively limiting the space for apprentices to work. The creation of expensive new bureaucracies to administer and monitor training (as opposed to actually providing training) also raises significant barriers to accessing effective training, and finally there is a patchwork quilt of provincial rules regarding apprenticeships across the country, creating needless confusion and paperwork. If we really want to match the training of Canadians to the jobs available, these and other barriers must be eliminated. Thankfully, Budget 2013 committed to working with the provinces to harmonize regulatory requirements.
The budget also makes major infrastructure spending commitments, totalling $53.5-billion over 10 years. Here too governments have work to do in order to ensure taxpayers receive the best value for their money. Specifically provincial and municipal governments must eliminate inefficient and unfair closed tendering practices which exclude non-unionized workers from undertaking work on projects funded by the infrastructure programs.
All Canadians, regardless of whether they are union members or not, should have the right to work on projects funded by their own tax dollars. In many jurisdictions, access to bidding on such projects is restricted to unionized contractors, meaning that some 70% of construction workers are automatically excluded from employment on these projects. Policies that limit tendering for public works projects not only drive up costs for taxpayers, they effectively create a regulated wage floor for construction workers, which disproportionately impacts employment opportunities for young workers with little experience -- precisely the types of people the government's other initiatives are designed to help.
The blatant self-interest of those in closed union shops cannot be allowed to trump the rights and interests of the wider Canadian public. A move to open tendering on publicly-funded projects would ensure both better value for money for taxpayers, and more opportunities for young workers.