By Steve Maxwell
I recently received an email from an electrician named Ken on the east coast and it got me thinking. He’s been in the trade for 25 years and during that time he’s noticed how training has degenerated. When Ken began, apprentices shadowed journeymen, learning all there was to know. But these days, Ken observes, new tradespeople are simply “thrown under the bus.”
“Quality has taken a back seat to quantity,” Ken told me. “Jobs are thrown together and look good only on the surface. Behind the scenes there are accidents waiting to happen! I recently left a company after a number of years because of this reason and the fact the boss was using someone with no certifications to run jobs and look after apprentices.”
I hear similar stories from people in the trades all the time. What can be done?
First of all, I think we can give up on the idea that government can improve the state of trades in Canada. There’s very little in the world that government does well, especially when it involves the operations of private businesses. I agree with philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who famously wrote in his 1849 pamphlet Civil Disobedience: “That government is best which governs least.”
Second, we need to ask a question: Do enough people in the world of building care about the state of workmanship to make a difference? If people like Ken are right, the root of the problem stems from the kind of greed that leads to cutting corners on training and project management. It’s more profitable in the short term to require a 20-year-old to bumble along on his own than it is to let an experienced tradesperson show that young person how it’s done. This can only happen if a critical mass of contractors care enough to make a difference in their own area of influence.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, the world had no formal training for the trades. The highly successful apprenticeship system of yesteryear developed slowly, over centuries, in response to real needs. Government was not involved. The driving influence was the practical people who knew how to make good things happen with their hands and knew how to pass this knowledge on to young people.
Well, if tradespeople of the past could build an apprenticeship system from scratch, why can’t we recreate it? Maybe we can. Except for one thing that worries me. Could it be that government has placed such a burden of cost and regulation on the building trades that it’s necessary to cut corners and “be greedy” just to stay alive?