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The Cardus Daily

The Value of Skilled Trades in Canada

Peter Stockland  |  November 21, 2014  |  Labour, Politics, Trade, Vocation

It’s an uncontroversial thing when Employment Minister Jason Kenney says he believes work is a good thing.

Yet it feels like a curiously controversial thing when the minister offers his related belief that employers, trade unions and other non-government actors actually have a responsibility to open doors to work for Canadians.

Perhaps its a measure of our skewed State-citizen relations. Maybe we are just a people sunk deep in the need for blinding statements of the obvious. Whatever the reason, it was clearly the off-message message Kenney felt needed to be delivered in his address yesterday at the Cardus Building Meaning roundtable in Ottawa.

“Why do you come to me and my provincial counterparts and complain about skills shortages when you are not prepared to pay for … training programs, when you are not prepared to put skin in the game?”  he demanded.

“Why is it that when I visit [trade training schools], I find they are turning away 90 percent of qualified applicants because they don’t have spaces for them? Why is it that when young people do everything we ask of them, they are put on two-year waiting lists? It’s a form of bait and switch.”

By contrast, he cited the example of German employers who spend about 50 billion euros a year on apprenticeship programs and skills training. He spoke of meeting young Germans in workplaces during a visit last spring and being struck by the pride in their eyes not only at what they were learning, but at what they could already do.

“I met 16-year-olds who were already working to professional standards, who were working as mature adults.”

It’s not something he sees in Canada nearly as often as he’d like, Kenney said. He made it clear that while government can always do more, better, it’s long past time that apprenticeship and skills training budgets got significant boosts from the private sector.

Kenney can deliver such messages effectively for reasons that go beyond his current job title and the ministerial limo waiting outside. For starters, as Cardus executive vice-president Ray Pennings noted while introducing him, he is almost universally recognized as the hardest working MP on Parliament Hill. It does not hurt, either, that despite being in his 40s with a couple of decades of political trench warfare already behind him, his physical demeanor is most often that of a choir boy asking God for permission to sing.

His hard truths, then, come wrapped in a mantle of genuine understanding of what the issue is, where the problem lie, and who needs to do what to help get things resolved. From that perspective, his message was consonant with what participants at the Cardus Building Meaning roundtable had wrestled with earlier in the day.

There is a burgeoning realization, articulated by many at the Ottawa event but equally by participants at earlier regional Building Meaning roundtables across the country, that Canada is ripe to begin recognizing the work of skilled trades—and all forms of manual work—as valid and viable and meritorious paths for young Canadians to pursue in place of attending university straight out of high school.

The Honourable Jason Kenney with Neil Tidsbury of Construction Labour Relations, Cardus executive vice president Ray Pennings, Dick Heinen of CLAC, Work and Economics program director Brian Dijkema, Darrel Reid of Progressive Contractors Association Canada, and Robert Blakely of the Building and Construction Trades of Canada

In a keynote speech, Matthew Crawford, author of the book Shop Class as Soulcraft, made the point that the life of the academy now foisted on virtually all high school graduates is wholly inappropriate for the vast majority. That’s not just because  so many university degrees have limited—or no—economic value, Crawford said. It’s because scholarship itself is something that naturally suits itself to only a narrow percentage of the population.

“It’s a rare person who is willing to sit still in school for 16 years, and then for life at work,” he said. “The scholar is a very particular human type, yet that has become our picture of what a normal life should be.”

Crawford exemplifies his own message. A PhD in political philosophy originally trained as a physicist, and a senior fellow in advanced cultural studies at the University of Virginia, he also owns a motorcycle repair shop and supported himself by working as an electrician. In his speech, he marveled at the craft work of an electrician he knew who had “bent conduit” spectacularly in a massive industrial complex.

“If you’re an electrician, you can either bend conduit or you can’t. You have solid ground to stand on. A tradesman does not need to offer chattering explanations of himself.”

What speaks, Crawford said, is the work itself. And it says multiple things. It testifies to the transformation of the world through a new creation. It speaks to the agency of the one who has done the work and effected that creative transformation. There is the nobility of the human inherent in such work.

It should be an entirely uncontroversial thing for country such as Canada to organize its State-citizen relations in a way that lets such nobility emerge through the well-trained hands of its apprentice workers. Indeed, that should be one blinding statement of the obvious that even Canadians don’t need to hear.



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