Ontario College of Trades: Are Changes on the Horizon?

licensed electrician working

Licensed electricians and apprentices, unionized or not, pay dues to the Ontario College of Trades (OCOT). But they often aren’t sure what it does or why it exists.

OCOT has faced much criticism in its few short years of existence, and since the release of the Tony Dean Report, it appears that the Ministry of Labour may be making changes to the College in the coming months.

IBEW CCO agrees that there is room for improvement, but calls for the inclusion of skilled trades and trade representatives on any panel that may be making decisions about the future of the College.

The following is a review of how and why OCOT exists, and an exploration of the issues surrounding it.

OCOT: Genesis and Mandate

Ontario College of Trades logoFormed in 2009, OCOT was created to oversee the skilled trades in Ontario. It was formed on the recommendation of the Tim Armstrong Report on Compulsory Certification, released in 2008.

Armstrong was asked to look at:

“…the impact of expanding compulsory/restricted certification under the Trades Qualification and Apprenticeship Act and the Apprenticeship and Certification Act, 1998, with particular reference to the ramifications for health and safety, the registration of new apprentices, the rates of completion, consumer protection, economic impact and any other factor(s) that I may consider to be relevant.”

Armstrong found that there was a need for a new governing body to “enhance the standing and effectiveness of apprenticeable trades and their continued, strengthened contribution to the growth of the Ontario economy.”

The other key foundation for OCOT is the Whitaker Report on how OCOT should be structured and governed. Kevin Whitaker recommended that the the college should be “industry driven” (made up of actual registered trade workers), the same way doctors and teachers oversee themselves. It makes sense, as the trades themselves are the most familiar with the complex issues and dangers involved in what they do.

OCOT board membership includes everyone who is a registered trade and employers as well – all of whom have first hand knowledge of what’s involved in a skilled trade and where improvements can be made. (There are also public members who do not have trade experience but are there to represent the public interest.)

OCOT’s mandate includes:

  • Promoting the skilled trades to young people as a first choice career – not as a fallback if their university education fails to pan out. A related priority is promoting diversity in trades reaching out to women, new Canadians, and Aboriginal people.
  • Determining which trades are compulsory trades (requiring a defined apprenticeship, education and licensing process) and which are voluntary.
  • Establishing job descriptions (known as a Scopes of Practice or SoPs) for all skilled trades.
  • Establishing appropriate journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios.
  • More roles listed here.

A Response to the Underground Construction Economy

35,000 volt cables improperly installed by a non-electrical tradesperson
35,000 volt cables improperly installed by a non-electrical tradesperson.

OCOT was formed in part as a response to the underground construction economy in Ontario, which in 2015 alone was worth about $15 billion. That represents a substantial amount of revenue lost to the Province that could have been used for better infrastructure, healthcare, and other essential programs which continue to face budget cuts.

In the last 50 years or more, some unscrupulous employers have been hiring, and continue to hire, unregistered apprentices and other completely untrained workers for the lowest possible wage. These workers are tasked with the work of licensed trades, often becoming injured or killed at job sites. Quality of work has also suffered in these situations, endangering the public.

Examples include:

Safeguarding Licensed Trades – and Public Safety

What you often don’t read about is OCOT’s role in enforcement, which was called for specifically in the Tim Armstrong report (see page 4, Recommendations, “to engage in certification enforcement”).

OCOT employs approximately 50 inspectors to ensure that anyone doing the work of compulsory trades is either a licensed journeyperson or registered apprentice. The inspectors travel to job sites and check that apprentices are registered and journeypersons are fully licensed, issuing tickets as well as promoting compliance to anyone who is not.

All licensed electricians need to spend 9,000 hours (5 years) on their apprenticeship, take about 6 months’ worth of classroom training, and must pass the licensing exam. This ensures both quality workmanship and safety for workers and everyone else. It is just not possible to hire someone off the street and expect them to know everything they need to stay safe and do a good job.

Shouldn’t Inspections Be Catching the Problems?

Theoretically, the ESA (Electrical Safety Authority) inspectors should also be catching substandard work. Often, they do. But some electrical work, especially in residential homes, goes unreported to the ESA. Some contractors who attain ACP (Authorized Contractor Program) status, only get inspected on an occasional basis. That leaves a lot of room for dangerous work to go unnoticed until too late.

In spite of the best efforts of the OCOT inspectors and the ESA, the underground construction economy continues relatively unhindered. Homeowners and organizations are the ones who suffer in the end, as recipients of substandard and dangerous work in exchange for the lower price paid.

The Tony Dean Report

Background

Cover page of the Tony Dean ReportSince the formation of OCOT, some employers have voiced concerns that the regulations are too strict. A hot topic in particular is the whether or not carpentry should be made a compulsory trade. It has also been suggested that compulsory trades should be divided up into core skills and peripheral skills. The core skills would require a licensed trade, while peripheral skills could be done by anyone.

Here’s an example of the kind of division that could result: a licensed electrician would be needed to install the wiring for a light fixture, but anyone could hang the fixture itself. It sounds reasonable – if you don’t have any experience with electrical work.

The problem is that general labourers often don’t understand safety and quality implications of what they do, which creates risk of injury or even death. In our light fixture example, a misplaced wire or mis-set switch could cause the metal frame of a dropped ceiling to become an electrified deathtrap. Also, more menial tasks like hanging fixtures are currently done by lower-cost apprentices, who are given appropriate instruction about what they’re doing.

Nonetheless, in response to some of these complaints, in 2015 the Tony Dean Report was commissioned to look at the role of OCOT and propose improvements.

Response to the Tony Dean Report

While the IBEW CCO supports 28 of the 31 recommendations in the Tony Dean report, there are a few that are cause for concern.

  1. Using the OLRB as a board of appeal in enforcement and other issues.
  2. Splitting up SoPs and allowing partial certifications, and using an undefined concept (“risk of harm”) as the basis for whether or not tasks belong to licensed trades.
  3. Excluding industries – actual skilled trades workers – from the review of SoPs.

Together with the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO) the IBEW released a report called “Hidden Dangers” which explores these objections in detail.

In 2016 the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO), the IBEW Construction Council of Ontario (IBEW CCO) and the Ontario Pipe Trades Council commissioned independent health and safety researcher Gavan Howe to explore the meaning of “risk of harm”.

Howe found that there is no current proper definition of “risk of harm” as it pertains to healthy, well-adjusted workers. In his report “Risk of Harm” he outlines the complex factors that can change what “risk of harm” means to industry experts. The Ontario College of Trades has heard a presentation of Risk of Harm by Gavan Howe, but has not issued an official response.

Meanwhile, former Attorney General and Minister of Labour Chris Bentley was commissioned by the current Minister of Labour to do a report looking at the implications of using the OLRB as a board of appeal on enforcement issues. While the report was completed in September 2016 – at taxpayer expense – the government has refused to make it public.

Holding Pattern

Currently, IBEW CCO is awaiting an official response to both “Hidden Dangers” and “Risk of Harm”. There is also the larger issue of what, if any, changes are to be made to OCOT.

At the end of the day, we recommend:

  1. Proper enforcement of the compulsory trade Scopes of Practice.
  2. Fair, open, transparent forum for non-compulsory trades to consider becoming compulsory trades.
  3. Promoting the skilled trades to young people as a #1 career choice.

While no organization is perfect, we should ensure that any changes to OCOT make things better, not worse.