BY PETER CAULFIELD - A report prepared for the Canadian Homebuilders' Association of British Columbia is floating the idea of a construction apprenticeship program specifically for Section 9 home builders in the province.
Suggestions include changes to program entry requirements, flexible training formats, apprentice-share programs and Internet-based learning.
"Industry leaders want to prepare the residential construction sector for future challenges and opportunities," said Paul Shorthouse, managing director of Globe Advisors, which prepared the report.
These challenges include an aging workforce that will need to be replaced, increasing competition for workers, changing building codes and best practices, and new technologies.
A description of the challenges and proposed solutions is contained in the British Columbia Residential Construction Industry Profile study.
There are about 25 construction trades with apprenticeships in BC.
Each apprenticeship program, which lasts four years, has about an eight-week yearly block of school.
The remainder takes place on the job.
Shorthouse said the home building industry has a "general appreciation" that the apprenticeship system can help B.C.'s skilled workforce grow.
But, unlike the industrial commercial and institutional (ICI) sector, it lacks a culture of apprenticeship training..
"Contractors in residential construction tend to be small," Shorthouse said.
"Most have fewer than 10 employees and some are sole proprietors with no employees. For them, recruiting and indenturing apprentices is a very important decision."
As a result, some residential construction employers are unwilling to invest in long-term worker training.
Future apprenticeship models need to be flexible and accessible, to ensure the right skills are in the right place at the right time, Shorthouse says.
"The province's trade training programs — how they are structured, what they include, how long they take and so on — must meet the needs of residential construction businesses and trainees alike."
Gary Herman, CEO of B.C.'s Industry Training Authority (ITA), said skills, and therefore training, requirements are different across BC.
"To be cost-effective and competitive, a small builder in the North wants a carpenter with a range of skills," he said.
"But, a larger builder in the Lower Mainland wants specialists."
Some of the report's proposals, such as minimum admissions criteria to counter the view that a trade is a job of last resort, have a precedent.
For example, the College of the Rockies has a range of requirements for its 13-week timber-framing program.
Applicants must complete a questionnaire to assess their experience, aptitude and motivation before starting the course.
Another proposal is the establishment of flexible training formats and schedules because traditional apprenticeship models can be restrictive, with trainees required to spend many weeks a year in the classroom.
Increased flexibility would mitigate the impact of the block release approach.
The report also argued for more use of Internet learning, especially in those trades where apprenticeship classroom training is offered at only a few schools.
The report said game-style systems can help with on-site training and may add value to recruitment events by helping to make trades fun.
B.C. Construction Association vice president Abigail Fulton said the residential construction sector's concerns are justified.
"Where possible, the industry training system should encourage employers to take on more apprentices," she said.
"So, an alternate approach that assists in that endeavour can only be a good thing."
But Fulton's support comes with a caveat.
"In developing such approaches, we need to be mindful of the ICI sector, which relies heavily on trade qualifications and trains most of the apprentices in the construction trades," Fulton said.
"Most ICI employers, who train apprentices, prefer the traditional approach... so some flexibility and some alternate approaches are appropriate as long as they can co-exist with the tried-and-true approach in the ICI culture of training."
Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, said a new approach to construction apprenticeships is necessary.
"Training is already taking place in residential construction, but it's not credentialed," he said.
"If we can find a way to credential existing training, then the credentials will gain value and people who work in residential construction will want them."
There has been a delay in implementing the report, which was published in 2013, because of the provincial government's recent review of the ITA, said Kim Savage, executive director of Thermal Environmental Comfort Association, and one of the project leads
"We've been discussing with stake holders the development of a residential construction skills centre, which would implement the proposals regarding alternative apprenticeships," Savage said. "We hope to have a business plan for the centre ready by fall 2014."
Savage said the centre will be a virtual facility and will operate alongside existing training centres, rather than compete with them.