The role of unions in trades training in Ontario in the past decade has spiked significantly, according to a new report from the Ontario Construction Secretariat.

The secretariat, a resources agency supporting the unionized ICI sector in the province, reported construction trade unions and their partner employers invested $146 million in training in 2019, an increase of 261 per cent over the past decade, and a tripling of spending since 2006.

The partners also spent $325 million between 2013 and 2019 in capital upgrades for training facilities and equipment, bringing the total of union-employer training facilities in the province to 40, delivering 61 training programs.

Approximately one-third of construction apprentices are getting their training in a unionized training facility, up from 23 per cent a decade ago. There were an all-time high of 10,485 apprentice registrations in 2019, up 32 per cent from 2010. Apprentice completions have increased 75 per cent since 2010.

The report, Training Investment in Ontario’s Construction Industry, was released Feb. 3.

“Research has demonstrated the return on this collective investment with evidence of higher rates of apprentices completing their program sponsored by both their employer and their trade union compared to apprentices sponsored only by their employer,” said Bob Bronk, CEO of the secretariat.

The report outlines how the pandemic initially took a heavy toll on the union training system both financially and in terms of interrupted apprenticeships. Unions reported investing $26,621, on average, to adapt training and adhere to health and safety measures. The average total cost incurred due to COVID-19, which could include the cost of temporary closures or payroll for idle employees, was $52,739.

Some unions, however, reported no additional costs stemming from the pandemic.

Bronk said while training and apprenticeships have been interrupted during the pandemic, union training centres found ways to deliver programs such as health and safety, working at heights and WHMIS training. There was a backlog of apprentices wanting to write their certificates of qualification.

But union training centres are hoping to recover in 2022 if the pandemic finally subsides.

Bronk said the secretariat does not have the latest numbers on how apprenticeships have been interrupted.

The report said, “Apprenticeship data in 2019 provides an important baseline for the impact of COVID-19 on apprenticeship completions and registrations, which are anticipated to be significant.”

“It could have been worse,” Bronk said, describing the adaptability of the training agents.

In Ontario, apprentices learn their trades through time on the job with a registered employer and through classroom work, either at a college or through a union/employer training provider. The Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development offers a subsidy of $66 per day for each registered apprentice, Bronk said, whether union or non-union. Some non-union workers attend union training centres, Bronk pointed out.

Workers in Ontario’s building trades unions and their employer partners contribute, on average, 58 cents of every hour worked to apprenticeship training, skills upgrading and health and safety training.

The union advantage, Bronk said, lies in the flexibility and comprehensiveness of the training systems, which he said have developed over decades from the ground up, with expertise in each union.

“We’ve been trying to look at an angle to prove why we’re safer,” he said, referring to a January 2021 study by the Institute for Work and Health that found lost-time injury claims are 31 per cent lower on unionized building trade construction jobs than they in a non-union environment. “A big part of that is it’s intuitive, it’s training. If you’re going to invest in all that training, and this is just not only apprenticeship training, this is also health and safety training as well as skills upgrading, that’s a big piece of that puzzle.”

As for productivity, Bronk said, “When you have people who know what they are doing, they get it right more often the first time and make fewer mistakes if they’re properly trained. That’s why you invest in your workforce.”

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