Skilled trades must remain part of conversation on innovation, say advocates

Polytechnics give students hands on learning, and drive innovation forward. Budget 2017 is an important opportunity to support research and learning across the country

Originally Published in The Hill Times by, Marco Vigliotti.

'Innovation is and always has been part of our trades,' says construction union leader Bob Blakely.'

As the Trudeau government seeks out avenues to bolster innovation, advocates are urging Ottawa to tap into the opportunities available in the skilled-trades field, arguing innovation isn’t restricted to the digital sphere.

Bob Blakely, operating officer for Canada’s Building Trades Unions, which represents more than 500,000 construction workers, argued that not only have technological advancements reshaped the trades over the years, but the entire business structure of the field ensures innovation remains at the forefront.

“Our business is competitive and founded on ‘low bid,’ so that means those that manage, organize, and innovate will win,” he said. “Innovation is and always has been part of our trades.”

The CBTU is the Canadian office of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, known by its acronym AFL-CIO.

Mr. Blakely, who has worked as a plumber, steamfitter, and gas-fitter, said he has witnessed first-hand the impact innovative developments have had on the trades, as the materials in use have fluctuated significantly over the years.

In terms of his own work, he said he has gone from primarily working with lead pipe to cast iron and copper, and then on to various kinds of plastics.

“The techniques change but the functionality of the tools, the materials, and how work is done remain,” he told The Hill Times.

Furthermore, he argued that whatever advancements emerge in the coming years and decades, the economy will still require raw materials, processing, and places to live and work, all of which require the talents of professionals working in the skilled trades.

It’s a reality not lost on other advocates.

Writing in The Hill Times, Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF), and Nobina Robinson, CEO of Polytechnics Canada, argued that skilled tradespeople and apprentices must be included in the conversation on innovation.

“As the Canadian government sets its sights on innovation through all that is high tech, it is important to recognize that Canada’s skilled tradespeople, apprentices, and the institutions they train at … are each operating at the forefront of technology in their own right,” they write.

“When talking innovation (and building the skills for innovation), skilled tradespeople, and the apprentices that make up their future cohorts, must be included in the conversation. Technology’s impact on industry is undeniable and the trades are no exception.”

Polytechnics Canada represents publicly funded polytechnics, colleges, and institutes of technology. Its membership includes the likes of Ottawa’s Algonquin College, Toronto’s Humber College, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology, among others.

The group is a member of the CAF, which bills itself as a hub of research, discussion, and collaboration for apprenticeships in Canada.

Ms. Watts-Rynard and Ms. Robinson cite, as an example, the technological knowledge required of modern service technicians to underscore the interplay between innovation and the skilled trades.

With cars becoming increasingly complex and equipped with more cutting-edge technologies, including the advent of autonomous driving, technicians will increasingly become part of multidisciplinary teams that can update a car’s software over WiFi, understand car-to-car wireless communication, and repair on-board hardware, they write.

To cope with rapid technological advancements, Ms. Watts-Rynard and Ms. Robinson said those in the skilled trades are adopting “models of lifelong learning” that merge the technical with the technological, and also the mechanical.

And the classrooms apprentices learn in, they write, are also adapting to these rapid changes by providing opportunities for students to get hands-on experience with cutting-edge technologies, from diagnosing engine problems using apps to experiencing an array of different scenarios through the use of innovative simulators.

“The skilled trades of today require a whole new set of skills on top of those passed down from their mentors. The ability to utilize and work alongside an array of technologies is paramount to success,” write the advocates.

But despite the importance of innovation in the skilled trades, Ms. Watts-Rynard and Ms. Robinson point out that the 2017 budget made no explicit mention of the skilled trades, apprentices, or the role they will play in Canada’s new innovation-centred economy.

“Despite a focus on skills and massive investments in infrastructure on the books, building the knowledge and capacity of Canada’s tradespeople was largely overlooked,” they argue.

However, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.) maintained that the Trudeau government understands and recognizes the “critical role” people working in the skilled trades play in creating an innovative economy.

“Innovation is about making things better. It’s about doing things that provide better outcomes. There’s so much innovation taking place in the skilled trades around processes, around how things are done, that have a positive impact on the lives of people,” he told The Hill Times.

“That’s innovation, in my opinion, and that’s why they are part of our agenda.”

Minister Bains pointed to new federal initiatives aimed at providing more opportunities and financial support for those seeking to upgrade their skills, including trade workers adapt to technological advancements.

In this year’s budget, the Liberal government earmarked $454-million to help working adults upgrade their skills and has invested more than $2.7-billion in skills training, and support through the Labour Market Transfer Agreements reached with the provinces and territories, which spell out and structure the support provided by Ottawa for training and employment programming.

The government also earmarked $221-million over five years to target 10,000 work-integrated placements for post-secondary students. The funds will flow through Mitacs Canada, a not-for-profit, national research organization that manages and funds research and training programs for post-secondary students.

At the core of the government’s thinking, Mr. Bains said, is the recognition that in a new “digital economy,” every company is a tech company, as innovative new products and services proliferate across all sectors and all lines of work.

He cited the use by those in the skilled trades of billing apps and new tools to communicate with suppliers to highlight the need for lifelong learning to allow employees in all fields to adapt and take advantage of new technologies.

“The idea is we recognize that all of these are complementary, and more important, what we want to do is to allow people to have the ability to reach their potential and be able to pursue the careers that they want to, and make sure that they understand we want to create a lifelong learning culture, regardless of the profession they are in,” he said.

“That continual investment in education will allow us to be more competitive.”

Mr. Blakley, though, argued that Ottawa must take on a more vocal role championing the skilled trades, in addition to better harmonizing training programs.

The trades, he said, need champions who will advocate for their worth, workplace diversity, and provide underrepresented groups a place in the field.

Mr. Blakely also said the government must continue to support training and skills upgrading for the trades, citing the confusion and irregularity of tapping into employment insurance (EI) funds to cover new training programs.

While in some cases, EI funds can be used to assist workers looking to acquire more skills, in other instances this is not permitted, and the decision appears to be decided at the “bureaucratic level,” he said.

Mr. Blakley called for the government to ensure the necessary training is available to support the harmonization of the trades and to ensure acquired skills and apprenticeships are aligned around “curriculum and sequencing.”

“That means increasing capacity, and where groups like unions or joint apprenticeship training committees—a labour management group based on a trust agreement—can deliver training, they ought to be allowed to do so,” he said.

Select skills training funding in Budget 2017

  • $221-million to target 10,000 work-integrated placements for post-secondary students
  • $454-million to help working adults upgrade their skills
  • More than $2.7 billion in skills training and support through the Labour Market Transfer Agreements 

Marco Vigliotti is a reporter for the Hill Times. Originally from Ottawa, he worked has worked as a journalist in three provinces, covering everything from provincial and city politics to natural disasters. An obsessive political junkie, he can recall exact seat totals from federal elections past but routinely forgets items on his grocery list. He can be reached at mvigliotti@hilltimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Marco_Vigliotti.