Last month, the provincial premiers attended a conference where they decried federal intrusion into the area of job skills training. While the employment market has low demand for university graduates in social sciences, several sectors report a shortage of skilled tradespeople. Provincially run colleges are still the main institutions to issue diplomas that open the doors to careers in a variety of trades. A few private colleges also offer skills training in select trades, but provincial ministries regulate most such institutions. Provincial regulations require in-residence attendance of classes for many programs.
There was a time when an interested candidate could learn a trade by working as an assistant to an established and skilled tradesperson. Over time, they gained skill and expertise and could write a test at a licensing authority. While the time-honoured skills of some trades such as tailoring, custom carpentry and hairstyling have remained essentially unchanged, there is ongoing change occurring in the world of technology and industry. At many automotive repair establishments, licensed mechanics who earned their diplomas long ago often need to consult the latest automotive repair manuals when working on some late-model vehicles.
Some of the information they seek may be available on a CD or over the Internet. If hobby backyard mechanics have access to the same information and the same tools, they could perform repairs or part replacements themselves, on their own vehicles. Some guilds (industry fraternities) that oversee certain trades now require experienced tradespeople to regularly write tests pertaining to their trade or lose their licensing. This is purportedly to ensure that tradespeople are up to date with the latest technology, but the same information is readily available to do-it-yourself types.
Changes in the world of technology and telecommunications have introduced new job descriptions that did not exist ten years ago. Interested candidates who wish to work in such jobs could obtain training instruction via industry books, training videos, instructional CDs and distance learning. Quite often, the accreditation tests are administered online, at a testing centre. Microsoft pioneered such learning and testing for candidates who managed and maintained the computer systems of businesses and industries. The variety and range of privately provided distance learning programs is steadily increasing, allowing many candidates to acquire certification while learning from home.
Some distance learning programs require candidates to purchase hobby electronic kits or scale model pieces of technology that will assist in their distance learning endeavours. Many private sector companies have been willing to give home-educated candidates a chance, especially if these candidates were already employees of those companies. At some companies, management personnel were willing to recognize that employees took the initiative to upgrade their skills and were willing to give the candidates the opportunity to demonstrate that their newly acquired skills would be of economic value to their organizations.
This author is personally acquainted with people who upgraded their skills through distance learning, offered by private institutions that administered testing and issued accreditation. The ultimate accreditation is when such candidates apply their newly acquired skills on the job, to the economic benefit of their private sector employers and their customers. But such an approach does not sit well with provincial authorities seeking to extort licensing fees from people employed in numerous trades, as well as their employers. Ontario has instituted a college of trades, purportedly to protect employers of capable tradespeople.
The private sector has long implemented strategies to ensure that they do in fact employ capable people. When new candidates join a company, they work through probation periods that allow employers to discover whether they fit into their organizations and are able to perform the required tasks. Existing employees who seek to upgrade their skills through distance learning are placed on probationary periods following their temporary promotions, during which time they may prove their new abilities to their employers. If they do not measure up, they get demoted.
The growth of online learning, distance learning and instructional CDs has provided benefits to many candidates and their employers. But federal and provincial government officials want to exert control over the way in which citizens upgrade their skills. Interviews with present and former trades students has revealed that many compulsory college level trades courses often teach students skills they already know and understand. They could have gone in and written a test that most of them would have passed on the first try, but the colleges get subsidies from compulsory classroom attendance.
Historically, the purpose of compulsory classroom attendance at institutions with limited seating was to restrict the number of candidates entering any particular trade. It is a modern version of the old guild system, administered by provincial officials during a time of massive changes in technology and in the economy. The system of regulation that extends into industry and the trades effectively discourages established tradespeople and the companies that employ them from hiring interested candidates who wish to learn the trade by working as helpers and assistants.
The system of market entry restriction has worked remarkably well to produce a shortage of skilled workers in many trades. Not only are these trades subject to control by certain provincial government agencies, but some other provincial government agencies are charged with providing the required skills training. One result is that many private companies across Canada now seek to employ skilled and experienced tradespeople from overseas. When these people arrive in Canada, they often encounter stumbling blocks in the form of provincial government regulations.
The growth of private instruction outside of government control has many benefits to offer private industry and the economy. The private sector has built-in mechanisms to test the value of accreditation. Most private training programs need to prepare students for particular job descriptions in the economy. But provincial governments are unwilling to allow greater freedom in the area of privately run skills training that includes private accreditation. The solution, as is so often the case, would be for government to get out of the way of private industry.
* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.