By Phil Gillies

COVID-19 struck a major blow to apprenticeship training in Ontario. The training of thousands of apprentices ground to a halt in March. Many of the 90-plus union and contractor-sponsored campuses resumed operations in June and July—with changes necessitated by the pandemic. Regular classes were largely up and running by September—but with reduced class sizes and new procedures in place.

We visited the Interior Finishing Systems Training Centre (IFSTC) in Woodbridge—where apprentices are trained in drywall acoustic installation, drywall finishing and plastering, exterior insulating, and hazardous materials handling. We found a tight safety regimen in place to protect trainees and staff. Where there would normally be four different entrances to the campus, everyone now goes through one secured entry point. Two staff members were conducting health screening for everyone coming in. Ample supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) were in evidence at several points in the building.

Where IFSTC would normally have 68 trainees onsite there are now 35. About six classes a day were meeting with about eight-to-ten students in a typical class. Class members were socially distanced, and all were wearing masks. The Centre says that more trainees will be joining programs in January.  Returning trainees will have to get used to some practical changes in the Centre’s operation—social distancing is observed throughout the facility. And as in most organizations, IFSTC has shifted away from paperwork and toward increased electronic communications. There is a lot of cleaning and sanitizing going on. And the students have to bring their own lunch, coffee, and snacks—for the time being there will be no coffee truck or other catering facilities on site.

Returning trainees will see a lot of familiar faces, however. Administrators at IFSTC are proud that no staff were laid off throughout the pandemic. Those who had fewer classroom or administrative duties went to work cleaning and sanitizing.

Interestingly, IFSTC has not made a big move to remote learning. E-learning is used only to facilitate in-class training. The Centre’s staff feel that in-person instruction is a vital part of proper training. There may be a move toward more online instruction down the road, but staff feel improvements are needed to the existing e-tools. While the tools are user friendly, minor accommodations are needed so that all trainees are comfortable in using them.

The Finishing Trades Institute of Ontario in North York, affiliated with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, also reports that some trainees may not have necessary computer skills to benefit from remote learning. Some may not have access to a computer at all, so arrangements are in place to accommodate them. Nobody is to be left behind in this new regimen. This centre continues to operate at 50 per cent capacity. They are employing staggered start times to help with social distancing. Centre administrators told us they are continuing to accept new applicants—nobody has been discouraged from pursuing their skilled trades ambitions.

And there’s good news from FTI—the centre has had no reported COVID infections at all.

Meanwhile training has continued at the College of Carpenters in Vaughan. Enrollment is down somewhat.  Last year they had 80 trainees enrolled, now they have 72. When the pandemic hit in March, they were in the middle of a flooring program. That program resumed in June, and most trainees returned. This fall, they report that more trainees want to rejoin programs than can be accommodated because of spacing. Classes that normally have 15 students currently have eight. The College used the onset of the pandemic as an incentive to accelerate the development of online courses. Before the pandemic only Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) was offered remotely. They now offer eight courses online. The College has a proposal before the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development to offer five more online courses.

The Carpenters have deployed a highly innovative COVID-19 screening mechanism at the entrance of their College. A futuristic Citizen Care Pod has replaced a screening tent. This retrofitted shipping container uses integrated artificial intelligence for enhanced contact tracing, safety and security. All people entering the College go through this pod, which it is believed will provide unparalleled capabilities for detecting virus symptoms. The Carpenters Union were the first to deploy one of these pods, which are now being looked at by organizations throughout Ontario.

Canada has a shortage of skilled tradespeople which is slowing the pace of construction. The pandemic has not helped with this situation. Continued building of infrastructure, commercial, and residential projects will be important to our country’s post-pandemic recovery. We will continue to focus on developments in the construction training centres and will report on their progress in returning to full training programs going into 2021.

Phil Gillies is the executive director of the Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC).

(This article initially appeared in the January/February edition of ReNew Canada.)

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