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The Apprentice Disconnect

Students are signing up in droves! They’re just not coming to class.

By John Norris

Hamilton, Ontario — February 19, 2013 — Large numbers of interested, motivated young people are enthusiastic about the auto body collision damage repairer trade and sign apprenticeship contracts each year across Canada. With their help, the industry has no skills shortages.  But … over 70 per centof them won’t make it to their first time at school!

The work to date shows that:
 
1) There is no shortage of new apprentices entering the trade (signing agreements). 
2) Efforts to sign up new apprentices are showing reasonably consistent numbers for the last five years. 
3) There is a massive attrition rate between signing up as an Auto Body Collision Damage Repairer (ABCDR) apprentice and the apprentice actually arriving at the Training Delivery Agent or community college for training. 
4) There are significant differences in volumes of apprentices in school between provinces
 
I am working on a short study/review with the members of the Canadian Council Directors of Apprenticeship (CCDA) across the country and asking them for their numbers on autobody/collision repair apprentices.  We know how many graduate each year in each province and we also have data that shows us that once they physically get to the TDA (Training Delivery Agent), chances are good they will stay in the trade. Different employers perhaps, and sometimes frequently changed, but still in the trade.
 
We are also asking students in the system, through their instructors, for their motivation and reasons for entering the trade. Did they follow the example of family or someone they knew in the trade? Were they mentored? Did they have secondary school experience or went to a trade show or skills competition, etc.?  
 
TDAs (usually community colleges) tell us consistently that attrition rates are nominal and they are the same in other trades in motive power (i.e., AST and Truck and Coach), somewhere in the 15 to 20 per cent range over the three to four years of intake at the school.
Some provinces are reporting a zero attrition rate which would identify returning apprentices who took a year off, for instance. But the provinces show huge loss numbers in these autobody progams.  
 
Ontario shows a total of 314 new apprentice contracts for programs in the year (including pre-apprentice), yet the colleges tell us that only 132 went to class. Ontario’s total numbers are much higher because of Centennial’s pre-apprenticeship, and London’s pre-apprenticeship class. Not included is Toronto’s fee-payer class of 82 students. Alberta’s Apprenticeship Branch advises 276 first year signed apprentices in autobody, but only 74 went to class: 14 in Calgary and 60 in Edmonton.   
 
Alberta charged 43 collision repair shops last year with failure to send new apprentices to school.  Autobody was the highest number of charges laid for a sector.  
 
Saskatchewan reports only 12 showed up for school (and the Ministry had to work hard to get that) out of 47 signed. Saskatchewan reports the total number of apprentices dropping from 127 to 120.  
Manitoba’s data is very similar to that coming out of Saskatchewan. Manitoba reports 55 signed apprentices with only 14 going to school.
 
Manitoba’s number of apprentices, unlike Sask., is going up from 177 last year to 186 this year.  
British Columbia’s figures are currently not available due to provincial privacy and FOI concerns.  
 
In eastern Canada, we find the same problem. Nova Scotia reports some 18 registrants for the trade but typically only three or four show up for class.  This year, because the trade has now been deemed “restricted”, attendance numbers are up to 9, according to their training college instructor. Nova Scotia reports a total of 66 apprentices.  
 
From the data, the real issue is becoming much clearer. We do not have a skilled trades shortage in terms of students. There are lots of motivated, eager, intelligent young people signing up for the autobody trade. Ontario alone shows 141 new signed apprentices from April to September of this year. That’s one new autobody apprentice every day, seven days a week, from April to September.  
 
The problem is that we are losing some 60 to 70 per cent of them prior to school starting. That’s why Ontario shows an 80 per cent failure rate for the trade of ABCDR. They are looking at the number of contracts signed against CofQ completion. If they looked at physical TDA entry against completion writing, the numbers would be in the 10 to 15 per cent range. No one wants to talk about this problem.  
 
As long as we have people who get paid to tell us of skills shortages and civil servants who get remunerated and assessed on the number of new apprentice contracts signed, not on graduation, then these false perceptions will continue. However, the work done by IEC’s, youth apprentice groups, apprenticesearch.com, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, CCDA and co-op programs has worked to maintain the interest in the trade.  
 
So, strangely to some, the answer to the shop-level skills trades shortage is not awareness or importation of skilled folks from abroad, but doing a better job of retention, employer assistance early in the process, getting that young person to school sooner and dealing with employer release.  
 
That is where the focus should be.  If that problem could be solved by even 50 per cent, it would mean 192 additional ABCDR technicians per year just in Ontario and Alberta alone. That growth would solve any technician shortage complaints.  
 
We already know why that young person leaves their employer, from the IEC/HRDC/HARA study on skilled trades retention. Since everyone has done a good, proveable job on attraction, the discussion should now focus on how to do a similar job on retention. Putting dollars into awareness programs, when we are losing over 70 per cent of the apprentices attracted to the trade, is a massive misuse of funds.  
 
One issue that keeps popping up is that it would appear only 30 per cent of eligible collision repair facilities owners even apply for the $10,000 apprenticeship grant to offset costs. These monies could well be used for retention cost reduction and could keep apprentices better employed.  
 
From a practical viewpoint, if a province sees a 80 per cent failure rate in their data (with autobody being the highest attrition rate in their figures), why should they continue to fund seat purchases?
 
John Norris is the Executive Director of Collision Industry Information Assistance (CIIA). He can be reached via email to johnnorris@ciia.com. For more information on CIIA, please visit ciia.com. 
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