In recent months, the Ontario government has promised to invest millions into encouraging young people to enter the skilled trades profession. The Ontario government’s skilled trades motto, “Find a career you wouldn’t trade,” is all well and good as long as the opportunities exist for students to take technology courses, participate in specialized programs, and attend exploratory activities to become accustomed to the apprenticeship pathway.
A January 10, 2020 news release from the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development claims the government is “investing approximately $75 million in three programs to expose high school students to the trades: $12.7 million in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program, $42 million in the Specialist High Skills major program and $20.8 million in a pre-apprenticeship program.” This sounds amazing, but will more dollars be put into maintaining limited capacity technology classes, having teachers to oversee Specialist High Skills Majors (SHSM), Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), Dual Credit and Coop programs, and ensuring supports are in place to successfully and safely train these students? Any reduction in teachers means reduced course options for students who lose the ability to fit experiential learning opportunities and technology courses into their timetables.
Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development, Monte McNaughton stated in a December 2019 interview that, “We know that one out of every five jobs in the next five years is going to be in the skilled trades. We also know that one in three journey-persons today are over the age of 55, so we’re reaching a crisis point in the shortage of skilled trades in Ontario.” It is true that we need more young people entering the trades, but that requires more support in our educational system, not less. Larger class average requirements present safety concerns in technology programs. To run a first-class technology program, schools need up-to-date equipment and tools, enough equipment for all students to learn, and sufficient funding for materials and opportunities to authentically engage students in the skilled trades. Even if technology classes continue to be capped, they may not be able to run as other compulsory courses will be staffed at higher ratios. Already school boards across the province are seeing a reduction in course options available for students.
If a student were to enter an apprenticeship, the new rules in Bill 47 allow for a one-to-one journey-person to apprentice ratio. If the government feels 1:1 is vital for training qualified apprentices, how is 40:1 is increasing class sizes in other subjects acceptable in a secondary classroom? The very nature of apprenticeship training is in direct conflict with this government’s proposed cuts to education. Also in contradiction is their claim they are committed to attracting more Indigenous people and women in the skilled trades pathway. Slashing budgets and personnel will mean many specialized programs that enhance the learning of these students won’t be able to run. Decreased flexibility in timetabling, restricted course offerings limiting availability to coop, dual credits, and Level 1 training means students won’t be able to fit in the necessary requirements to pursue a career in the skilled trades into their schedules.
Experiential learning programs and opportunities, including technology courses, are what keeps a number of students in school. Many students learn best in a hands-on environment, and these students appreciate the authentic experiences that a technology class brings. These learners will be at a disadvantage as the government continues to implement mandatory e-learning. A technology, coop or OYAP program cannot be delivered via computer, and with the future of return to work in a COVID-19 environment, these programs will be further impacted. Requiring students to undertake two e-learning courses will further reduce the number of course options available. The student profile for trades courses and youth apprenticeship programs are not of a student who would benefit or be successful in on line delivery of curriculum. To ensure all students are engaged in school and prepared for a highly skilled workforce to meet the demands of the economy, we need to respect their interests and create environments for all types of learners.
In conjunction with vibrant technological programs, a variety of other rich learning experiences will be difficult to provide if funding for these programs is not maintained. Many school boards opted out of the Provincial Skills Competitions this past year as there is no money in the budget. With a reduction of technology teachers and courses, students would not even receive the training and schooling necessary to compete. Post-secondary schools and industries offer bursaries and employment to students who do well in these competitions, so not only do students miss out on this invaluable experience, but employers can also miss out to hire some excellent candidates.
The impact of education cuts and reduced funding extend well beyond the classroom. Prior to the COVID-19 shut downs, professional organizations such as the Ontario Council for Technology Education (OCTE) and Ontario Cooperative Education Association (OCEA) had to cancel their spring conferences due to budgetary cuts. These opportunities are lost to hundreds of teachers to learn innovative practices and become more informed about industry standards. There are no funds left to allow for professional development, and funding support to OCEA to help offset the costs of the conference was discontinued last year.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce stated in a November 2019 news release that “it is important students graduate with the skills and technological fluency they need in a competitive global labour market. This plan will provide more course offerings—including STEM courses—that will benefit students well beyond the classroom.” He previously had commented that, “Our government is committed to helping Ontario students gain the skills they need to prepare for the demands of the global economy and jobs of the future…By increasing educational opportunities for our students in the STEM and skilled trades sectors, we are giving them the tools they need to be successful in the classroom, to the boardroom, to the shop floor.”
Dear Minister Lecce, if this is the case, then how do you propose to do that when technological and other experiential programs and opportunities continue to be at risk for Ontario’s students?