By Phil Gillies, executive director, Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC)
Special to Ontario Construction News
All facets of our society were upended by the COVID 19 pandemic, and that includes the programs for apprentices in Ontario’s 90-plus training centres. These union and contractor-sponsored campuses are found in every corner of the province and prepare thousands of skilled tradespersons for work on construction projects in all our communities.
This training ground to a halt in March with the pandemic lockdown. Training is resuming now, but how will it be different as we go forward into the fall term?
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 were in evidence at several points in the building.
IFSTC actually opened its doors for health and safety training on May 19. Other discretionary programs were cancelled. Where there would normally be 50 trainees onsite there are now 30.
About six classes a day were meeting – on the day of our drop in we saw about five students in a typical class. Class members were properly socially distanced, and all were wearing masks. There were hand sanitizer stations in several locations in the building.
And where do the trainees stand in progressing through their programs? Upgrading programs are not going on at present – these will resume in the fall. Going forward this fall the smaller class sizes will remain the norm.
Going into the fall term IFSTC appears to be charting a course that many training centres will mirror: ample, readily available PPE, floor markings throughout, staggered class starts, working from home part-time to maintain social distancing and ongoing cleaning and sanitizing. There will be no coffee truck or other catering facilities on site – trainees are to bring their own lunch, coffee, and snacks.
And, as in most organizations, IFSTC has shifted away from paperwork and toward increased electronic communications.
Administrators at IFSTC also proudly told us that no staff were laid off throughout the pandemic. Those who had fewer classroom or administrative duties went to work cleaning and sanitizing. All reporting to OCOT and the Ministry of Labour continued as usual. The centre is continuing to accept new applicants – nobody has been discouraged form pursuing their skilled trades ambitions.
And most telling of all – the centre has had no reported COVID infections at all.
The story is much the same at the Finishing Trades Institute of Ontario in North York. Working closely with IUPAT (the Painters Union) this centre provides training for residential and industrial painters and glaziers.
Health and safety training at this centre resumed in May, and apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship courses resumed on July 27. The facility is operating at 50 per cent of capacity and all necessary pandemic safety measures are in place – PPE, staggered start times, screening on entry and an overall 2-meter spacing rule.
The Finishing Trades Institute is also moving towards on-line training, but instructors told us this was a push that was underway before the pandemic. A lot of training is done on the computer, so it could be done as easily from a remote location as in the classroom. Administrators are aware that some trainees may not have computer skills, or have a computer at all, so arrangements are in place to accommodate them. Nobody is to be left behind in this new regimen.
Meanwhile training has continued at College of Carpenters in Vaughan. The folks at the College used the onset of the pandemic as an incentive to accelerate the development of online courses – these were delivered throughout the lockdown period.
Carpentry apprenticeship training resumed on July 6. Classes that would normally be 15 trainees are now six students maximum. The next intake of trainees will take place at the end of August, at which time the class size will be increased to eight. Several staff members are dedicated to ensuring all safety measures are being observed throughout the college.
At a time when we are wrestling with a shortage of skilled tradespeople, and when construction overall is very busy, the constraint the pandemic will put on bringing new apprentices on stream is certainly not helpful.
But the training centres are ramping back up for the fall – safely and with new teaching procedures in place that will take up a lot of the slack caused by COVID 19.
Phil Giles is executive director, Ontario Construction Consortium (OCC). The OCC is a research and advocacy organization, originally funded through membership and support from the Interior Systems Contractors Association (ISCA), the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.