Labour Minister behind Ontario’s Surge in Apprenticeships
Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton doesn’t quite remember when he first got a taste of construction and the trades because he was probably too young to remember.
He grew up in a small, southwest Ontario town where his family owned and ran a hardware store for decades.
“At a young age I was sweeping the floors, stocking shelves and loading trucks for contractors. And at a young age I saw families in our community make a damn good living in the trades,” said McNaughton. “Our family owned a home hardware store and I can’t remember what age I started loading drywall and two-by-fours. I really gained an insight into the trades and I had respect for the men and women in the trades.”
“It became clear on day one that it all had to do with stigma. We have spent years sending a message to parents, guidance counsellors, young people and others that careers in the skilled trades are not meaningful or lucrative.” Monte McNaughton – Ontario Minister of Labour
Decades later, McNaughton is now presiding over an unprecedented boom in apprenticeships in the province. This June, the province reported apprenticeship registrations have increased 24% in the last year – from 21,971 to 27,319. Officials stated that in order to help deliver Ontario’s infrastructure plans, including building 1.5 million homes by 2031, Ontario will need over 100,000 new skilled trades workers this decade.
The increase comes after years of challenges. According to Statistics Canada, the largest drop in recent memory happened in 2020. New apprenticeship registrations declined by almost 29% across the country. In Ontario, they were down 37%.
How has McNaughton pulled off this burst in apprenticeship registration? The story goes back to 2019 when he was appointed minister of labour by premier Doug Ford. His first task was hitting the road with his ears open.
“I met with apprentices, employers, union leaders, visited training centres, colleges and really got an understanding of the challenges with our apprenticeship system in Ontario,” he said. “It became clear on day one that it all had to do with stigma. We have spent years sending a message to parents, guidance counsellors, young people and others that careers in the skilled trades are meaningful and lucrative. These are careers you can build a family around and you can be damn proud of these careers.”
These trips haven’t stopped. When he spoke with SiteNews, McNaughton was on the road to meet with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Council of Ontario.
After conducting their research, McNaughton and his team devised a three-pillar plan:
- End trades stigma
- Simplify the training system
- Encourage employers to take on more apprentices
McNaughton noted that ending stigma has been one of the biggest focuses of his strategy.
To attack some of the cultural attitudes directed towards the trades, McNaughton sought to take his message straight to young people. “Around stigma, we had to be clear in saying that we don’t need every young person going to university,” said McNaughton. “I have been critical of the government in the past when they told every young person that the only way to be successful was to go to university. In the trades you can start your own business, travel Canada – the possibilities are endless.”
He explained that the education system has been built around sending every young person to university. He made it his mission to make sure all students were presented with the option of trying a career in the trades.
“When I think of how we got to the point this year with the nearly 25% increase, it’s because we’ve promoted the skilled trades, and invested heavily making sure, starting in grade one, that every student is learning about the skilled trades,” he said.
The ministry sent dozens of trades recruiters into every high school in the province to compete with university recruiters. And the conversation went both ways.
“Before we rolled out our $1.5-billion skilled trades strategy, we had the ministry do research and we interviewed hundreds of millennials and did focus groups,” said McNaughton. “Unprompted and unscripted, they said they would rather work for less if they were safe at their job. This highlighted the importance of health and safety. We have invested more in health and safety in Ontario than at any point in its history. We’re hiring a lot of health and safety inspectors.”
The province also embarked on a widespread crackdown on job site bathrooms. In 2022 ministry inspectors visited 14,000 construction projects and issued nearly 2,000 orders to upgrade facilities. McNaughton also passed new laws that require better sanitation and at least one women’s-only washroom where the size of the site warrants it. The legislature also requires women in construction and workers with diverse body types to be outfitted in properly fitting gear, including uniforms, boots and safety harnesses.
To simplify the apprenticeship process, McNaughton launched Skilled Trades Ontario, a new Crown agency tasked with to promoting and marketing the trades, developing the latest training and curriculum standards, and providing a streamlined experience. One of the agency’s early actions was to digitize apprentice log-books to make things easier for workers.
To entice employers, McNaughton is offering companies $17,000.00 for them to train apprentices. He’s also led a blitz of job fairs highlighting careers in the trades. Looking ahead, McNaughton said he plans to double down on his strategy and that he believes some of his tactics are set to bear even more fruit in the future. As students enter high school and graduate, he believes that the new curriculum and recruitment efforts will have produced even more apprentices.
He also is leaving no stone unturned. McNaughton has struck deals or is creating new policy to help skilled workers, residents with criminal records and underrepresented groups get careers in the trades. “For far too long, people have looked down on people in the trades,” he said. “It’s an injustice and we’ve turned that conversation around in Ontario. I believe that has led to our success. We have a long way to go but it’s a good start. It will take years to fill labour shortages.