For once, a great notion

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Astoundingly, the federal and provincial governments in Atlantic Canada are getting out of their own way and forging a rational, relevant and thoroughly reasonable accord designed to improve both job prospects and economic development in the region for years to come.

And no, bitter winter weather aside, hell is not freezing over.

Witness last week’s announcement of an $8-million joint program (cost-shared between the feds, who are ponying up $4.3 million and the four Atlantic provinces, who will contribute $3.5 million) to promote trades training and apprenticeships and remove educational and labour market barriers that prevent employers and workers from finding  true, wedded, occupational bliss together.

“What’s happening now (is), in essence, we have four provinces doing their own thing virtually doing the same thing,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil told The Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

That’s got to go, said federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney at a news conference in Fredericton last week: “We need to break down the unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy that exists to people getting their apprenticeships done and to getting their journeyman ticketed status so they can actually be full journeymen on the job sites and moving around to where the work is.”

In practice, the program will harmonize training, certifications and standards across the region in 10 trades, starting with cook, instrumentation and control technician, bricklayer and construction electrician. The rest will follow in due course, and not a moment too soon.

For decades, certain parts of Canada have been enduring a steady erosion in the number of skilled tradespeople on the job. Where once being a cabinet maker or plumber was considered a thoroughly viable career choice, we somehow got it into our heads that, as Mr. Kenny so aptly states, “everyone just had to go to university. . . We stopped encouraging people to pursue vocational and technical trades in our  high schools.”

In recent years, the pendulum has begun to swing back. According to careersintrades.ca “the wage gap between workers with bachelor degrees and trade certificates is declining.  Between 2000 and 2011, the average weekly wages of full-time workers aged 25 to 34 with trades certificates grew by 14 per cent, while bachelor degree holders saw their wage growth slow to 1per cent. And, apprentices begin to make money right away, earning a wage from their first day at work.”

And yet, according to Rick Spence, business columnist, writing in the Financial Post last year, “Studies cited by Skills Canada, a federally supported organization dedicated to trades and apprenticeships, indicate 40 per cent of new jobs in he coming decade will be in skilled trades or technology (think computer animation, network support, etc.). “

Meanwhile, in guidance offices and family dining rooms, the song remains the same: just 26 per cent of young people aged 13 to 24 plan to consider a career in the skilled trades, with 59 per cent of youths saying their parents have not encouraged them to consider the trades as a career option.”

Given the coming demographic changes – the last cohort of baby boomers retiring (we’ll see about that, of course), dropping birth rates, and a steady-state universe for immigrants – a country with an increasingly light supply of people who can actually make things, like toilets, work invites a whole new set of productivity problems not yet imagined in chambers where bankers and economists chatter about national competitiveness.

Indeed, as Mr. Kenney observed, “We have a lot of tradesmen, the guys and ladies who literally built the the country, who are about to start retiring. We have a much smaller group of people to fill their shoes.”

It is refreshing, like a blast of Arctic air, to hear politicians of any stripe, from any level, talk pragmatically about issues into which they are willing to invest some expertise and over which they are prepared to exert some control – and all for the common good.

It is heartening to watch them put their heads together, work out their problems logically and calmly and, when the day’s work is done, unveil the big reveal.

Why, it’s almost as if some of them went to trade school.

Well. . .almost.

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