Trade scope review overdue

Contractors in this industry have long called for better enforcement of trade qualifications as they see unlicensed fly-by-night companies taking away business. That is now happening in Ontario as the College of Trades has enforcement officers visiting job sites and checking qualifications. And, once again, it’s a case of beware of what you ask for; there may be unintended consequences.

Apparently at least one HVAC contractor has seen his hydronic heating project shut down because the company doesn’t have a technician with a plumbing ticket. The problem with enforcement is that the scope of trades is clearly defined and those responsible for enforcement will follow the rules.

But the lack of enforcement over the years has allowed contractors to expand the tasks of each employee to take advantage of new business opportunities. So, taking a hydronic heating technician as an example, he may have started as an air conditioning mechanic but as the business expanded to include hydronic heating he took some courses and upgraded his skills, but not his certificate of qualification.

To obtain the qualifications required by law, he would have had to do a four-year plumbing apprenticeship. If his company didn’t have a journeyman plumber on staff, he would have had to move to a different company. And then he would learn a bit about hydronics and a whole lot of other stuff. That doesn’t make much sense.

One of the problems is that today’s tradesman must keep up to date with an enormous range of evolving technologies and practices. As energy efficiency also becomes part of the mix, retrofitting a home heating system is no longer simply a matter of replacing the existing furnace or boiler with a similar one. It requires considerable design skill on the part of the tradesman to properly evaluate the home and its system so that he can design and install a new one.

Every aspect of every trade has become more specialized. Perhaps it’s time to take a good look at the scope of trades in every category and determine whether they actually meet the requirements of today’s technologies along with tradesmen and employers.

It would also make sense, in many cases, to break a trade into different modules or levels so that rather than having a four-year apprenticeship covering everything, each category could be made up of several one-year apprenticeships.

If a tradesman wanted to focus on hydronic heating, he would only be required to do the one year for that category. Or he might take a year in hydronics, a year in forced air/sheet metal and a year in air conditioning along with a gas-fitting course to become a fully qualified residential HVAC mechanic. There needs to be flexibility so the tradesmen can pick and choose different qualifications to suit their own and their employer’s needs.

I also think we need to differentiate between residential and institutional, commercial and industrial (ICI). The day-to-day work of a residential air conditioning technician is different from a commercial refrigeration mechanic; the work of a residential plumber is different from that of a plumber working on an industrial site.

Enforcement of trade qualifications is a good thing. The contractors and tradesmen who work hard to earn all the necessary licenses deserve protection from the fly-by-nighters. But the scope of trades and the way apprenticeships are done needs an overhaul. 

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October 2014
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