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Working together will produce quality technicians

TORONTO, Ont. - In order for apprenticeship programs to be successful, there must be a synergy of four variables - the school, the employer, the government and the apprentice.Drive from all four sides...

TORONTO, Ont. – In order for apprenticeship programs to be successful, there must be a synergy of four variables – the school, the employer, the government and the apprentice.

Drive from all four sides must be present in order to generate the quality technicians the industry requires. While the aging workforce suggests there will be a shortage of technicians over the next seven years, industry members insinuate that there really isn’t a shortage of technicians but rather a shortage of qualified and skilled workers.

“There’s differing opinions about whether or not there’s a shortage (of technicians) out there, all we know is that it is extremely difficult to get qualified technicians with experience,” says Ray Jeffery, manager of training for Finning Canada.

Rolf VanderZwaag, manager, maintenance and technical issues for the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) agrees.

“There certainly is demand for skilled people, but I’m not really sure there is a shortage,” says VanderZwaag. “There is some frustration with not being able to get good people but that may just be that their skill sets are short.”

This reinforces the fact that if the problem lies with the skill sets and not the available number of apprentices, there needs to be more co-operation of apprenticeship forces.

Linda Gauthier, managing director for the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council, says apprenticeships are a high priority for the Canadian government and Human Resources Development Canada is putting more money into apprenticeship training.

“Statistics have demonstrated that there has been an increase in the number of people with that type of training getting jobs versus those with bachelor degrees,” says Gauthier. “So, trades have, in some aspects, surpassed other occupations.”

Peter Woodall leads the modified apprenticeship program (MAP), where apprentices work closely with OEMs in the industry, and is chair of corporate training. He is also responsible for the truck and coach program at Centennial College in Toronto, Ont. He has been impressed by the government’s role in apprenticeship programs of late.

“I think the government is being very proactive by putting a lot of money into apprenticeship programs, and committing to increase the number of apprenticeable trades and the number of apprentices in every trade, so industry has to take advantage of these initiatives,” he says. He adds there was a 47 per cent increase in apprenticeship program applicants this year over last year.

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), has 5,000 apprentices go through one of 20 different apprenticeship programs offered each year, but at least 200 of them go through the heavy equipment technician and mechanic programs, says Brian Moukperian, SAIT’s dean of transportation.

This would indicate that the government and the apprentice aspects of the successful apprenticeship program are in place, so where is the model falling short?

The education proponents are indicating that they are driving forward, and employers say the industry is moving in a similar direction, however, in essence, they seem to be butting heads.

VanderZwaag says there needs to be more dialogue between colleges and industry so that they mesh together more effectively.

“The industry is growing and the technologies are evolving and so the programs being offered have to follow suit,” says VanderZwaag. “The colleges say they are only able to deliver 10 per cent of the required training and the other 90 per cent is learned on the job, but if this is the case, then we need to know what each component consists of so both the educators and the employers can know what to expect.”

He suggests that the industry is fast approaching a point where it will drop the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to its technicians.

“When you are hired as a technician, you are presumed to know all the basics and all of the specialties, but in actual fact many become partially qualified on many things but not really qualified on anything,” says VanderZwaag.

His solution would be to restructure the apprenticeship programs to involve different levels of training. VanderZwaag likens his theory to that of the medical profession.

“You can go through an apprenticeship program to become a general practitioner or you can specialize in one main focus or you become a master and obtain training for each department,” VanderZwaag says. “The basic principles are the same throughout, but this would allow the schools to spend the same amount of time covering a fewer number of things with the students.”

Karl Parkinson, vice-president for Ryder Truck Rental and also apprenticeship chair for the Automotive Transportation Superintendent Service Association (ATSSA), says the apprentices that arrive at the employer often need training above and beyond what they should require at this stage, a good indication, he says, that the industry has to work more closely with the schools.

Parkinson says the industry is rapidly changing and has become significantly more technically complex in the last 20 years, so it demands a lot of different and more concentrated skill sets.

“It’s unbelievable the difference between mechanics today and those of 15 years ago. Engine technology has changed so much, computers, electronics, braking systems too, a lot of mechanics that I work with have had to take the time to re-learn and update their skills, it takes a talented mechanic to stay on top of everything,” says Steve Ainey, a recent apprenticeship graduate who now works for John Grant Haulage.

Ainey, whose wife Jeanette also graduated from the apprenticeship program and is working in the industry, says they had a tough time just learning about different programs due to lack of industry promotion.

“We had to do a lot of digging even just to find out how to become an apprentice, and I had an interest in this back in high school only because I grew up with it, but the guidance counselors didn’t even realize there was a difference between a truck technician and a car mechanic,” says Ainey.

The consensus is that apprenticeships and trades are not being developed sufficiently in high schools.

“The focus has been on academics and high schools have backed away from trades, so we have to take advantage of career days and open houses to show kids what is available to them,” says Parkinson.

VanderZwaag says high school education systems do not regard the trade as a viable career choice. More specifically to the trucking industry, there is no awareness of it at the high school level, even though it is among the largest employers in Canada.

The OTA recently prepared a series of 12 videos called Career Highways that discuss the different types of employment in the industry, including apprentice technicians, and delivered them to Ontario high schools to help the students and the staff better understand the industry.

“We are challenged as an industry to provide that awareness because we can’t expect the school system to do that,” says VanderZwaag, “but we can expect them to not be resistant to the things we provide them with.”

Woodall says the industry has to start thinking ahead.

“We have to be realistic about the future requirements for technicians,” says Woodall, “employers should take a good look at what they are facing in their shops and project how many skilled workers they will need five years from now.”

He also questions where the technicians are going to come from.

“Are they going to steal the technicians from the shop up the street? If everyone adopts that strategy then we are doomed,” says Woodall. “So it is ever more important that people grow their own technicians.”

Moukperian agrees that employers must always be thinking ahead.

“No matter what the condition, it takes three, or in most cases, four years to train a technician so that means if I was an employer I would have to think in the mode of always keeping apprentices on staff,” Moukperian says. “The minute I stop training, there is a weakness in the system.”

It is a competitive market, says Ainey, there are always positions av
ailable but there is a lot of bouncing around from company to company. Ainey says this is why it is crucial for the industry to work together with schools in order to help fight against the lack of promotion and build a unified program to produce strong and skilled technicians.

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