The following op-ed, by ICBA VP-Workforce Development Todd Cumiskey, first appeared in Buildforce Canada Magazine Nov. 2, 2021:

Construction company owners, by nature, are problem-solvers. They see a challenge, and they work to overcome it. It’s in their DNA and they bring it to every aspect of their business – including recruiting, retaining, and training their workers.

With Canada going over the demographic cliff of an aging workforce and industries from restaurants to healthcare to construction all feeling the pinch of a lack of young workers, our builders are desperately looking for innovative ways to draw in new apprentices.

My association, ICBA, teamed up with six BC painting companies and developed a 14-week distance learning program for working painters looking to challenge for their Red Seals. This has spread across the country, as several MERIT provincial associations – and their members – have signed on.

LMS Reinforcing Steel Group sponsors more than 200 apprentices in BC, and launched its own LMS Academy to support the training of their workers toward Red Seal accreditation.

When the pandemic hit, Pacific Vocational College accelerated its interactive “distance live” model of training. Among its most recent innovations is the use of scale models of plumbing equipment that it produces on its 3D printers and sends out to apprentices – enabling them to do a code-compliant set up of an apartment’s bathroom plumbing on their kitchen tables.

The private sector is doing its part. But unfortunately, government isn’t pivoting as quickly.

Government has a significant role to play in supporting the “soft infrastructure” for our economy; that is, skills development and worker training. Ensuring that effective training is provided in a fair and efficient manner so that workers are “skilled up” for available jobs is critical.

It is also important that every effort is taken to provide today’s workforce with relevant skills required now with a clear line-of-sight to the future. This is best accomplished through multiple pathways providing choice for students to learn in-school, on-site, and on-line. In the private sector, COVID-19 has proven that flexible program delivery is essential and must become the new normal.

Now is the time for government to follow suit. Take British Columbia, for example. For a dozen Red Seal trades, there is only a single school in all of BC. This means workers have to leave their homes, jobs and families, and come to the expensive Vancouver area to train. While Pacific Vocational College, LMS, ICBA, and other groups have pivoted to online and multi-site learning, many trades schools cling to their old way of training.

And that’s if the apprentice is lucky enough to get a training seat. For many apprenticeship programs, the waitlist to get into schools is generally a year, often two, and sometimes more. Imagine the look on a young worker’s face when you tell them that it might take them a decade to complete their four-year apprenticeship program.

Limiting access to these training opportunities has nothing to do with improving the quality of work – Canadian construction projects are designed by the best in the world, and are highly regulated, permitted, and thoroughly inspected. We should be giving as many young people an opportunity to get into the trades as possible – not holding the door shut through waitlists and unnecessary barriers to entering our industry.

Government should be encouraging workers to undertake apprenticeship training wherever they live and work. They should also be broadening credential recognition and supporting multiple pathways for apprenticeship training and skills acquisition. To do this, trades schools need to continue to advance online and distributed methods of apprenticeship and training.

MERIT Canada – through the associations in BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontarion and Nova Scotia – has made a significant commitment to support training the next generation of construction workers. We offer hundreds of courses online, on-demand, and in live video formats.

My association, ICBA, is the single largest sponsor of apprentices in BC, with nearly 1,400. And open shop companies, like the ones we represent, sponsor 82 per cent of all apprentices in the province. Again, the industry is doing its part – we just need government to do theirs, by opening more training seats, investing in the modernization of content delivery, and supporting construction employers and industry associations in their training efforts.

As Canada emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, flexibility has become a big buzzword for employees. Companies in all industries are facing the challenge of rethinking the workplace.

Construction contractors are no different – whether it’s on the job site or in the office, workers are looking for the choice and opportunities that come from more flexible work and training arrangements. They’re meeting the challenge—now government needs to, as well.