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Feature   June 1, 2013   by Noelle Stapinsky

Fee Hike For Licenses Has Skilled Trades Asking Why?

Byy now, most tradespeople across Ontario would have received a notice by mail introducing a new annual membership fee of $120 to maintain their licenses – a shocking increase from the $60 those in the province’s 22 compulsory...

Byy now, most tradespeople across Ontario would have received a notice by mail introducing a new annual membership fee of $120 to maintain their licenses – a shocking increase from the $60 those in the province’s 22 compulsory trades were required to pay every three years. This fee is to be paid to the Ontario Colleges of Trades (OCOT), the new industry-driven governing body that is now in charge of representing and regulating Ontario’s 150 skilled trades and 500,000 tradespeople.

For the remaining 128 trades or businesses that want to become a member, it’s voluntary. And all registered members are listed in a public registry on the OCOT’s website for the general public to access and verify licensed professionals.

While many were aware of the impending changes, the sheer size of the OCOT and its cost to industry has many asking what they will get in return. And some are fighting back – Sean Reid, director of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada, launched the Stop The Trades Tax campaign in 2011, which has so far won the support of 10,000 businesses and 150,000 tradespeople.

As an advocacy agency appointed by the provincial government in 2009, the OCOT employs about 60 at its downtown Toronto office. Its governing structure is made up of a 21-member board of governors, divisional trade boards for construction, motive power, industrial and service industries, and individual trade board representatives. Its mandate: to promote trades and apprenticeships, give the skilled trades sector ownership of decisions critical to their businesses, and, according to Ron Johnson, chair of the OCOT Board of Governors, “to elevate the status of trades to a profession.”

When asked about the high membership fee, Johnson says, “It’s simple really. The government [Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities] has always managed and regulated the skilled trades in Ontario. The cost of that regulation was spread across the entire tax base and subsidized by taxpayers. Now, it’s actually the tradespeople that will be managing and regulating. And now that we have a much smaller pool of people to draw from there is a cost associated with self regulation and self management.”

But as for how and when membership fees will be applied, how the OCOT intends to promote the trades and how the funds will be spent, for mechanics like Tim Ridley in Stoney Creek, Ont., it’s still unclear. His 310S certificate that he got from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities doesn’t expire until 2015, and has only been told that when it comes time to pay the membership fee he’ll be notified a couple of months in advance. “When you call them (OCOT), they can’t even answer simple questions. As of yet, I haven’t seen any benefit to the compulsory tradespeople. For decades, the Ministry was giving millions of dollars and it was part of their mandate to promote the trades to young people. Now the OCOT says they’re going to do it, but how?”

According to Johnson, the funds from the membership fees, among other initiatives, will be used to create a large enforcement division made up of 150 officers – when it’s at full capacity – that will have the legal authority to levy fines against employers and employees who are working illegally.

“We’re here to protect the public’s interest, first and foremost. And we’re also here to protect the integrity of the certification standards these folks works so hard to get,” says Johnson. “The public needs to learn about the College and its registry and how to use it. We’ll be putting as much effort as we can in a public awareness campaign to let people know the College is there to protect their interest.”

Greg Richardson, a truck coach and automotive technician in St. Thomas, Ont., takes issue with having his information on a public registry. “They’re publishing my name, OCOT membership number and my certificate numbers. There’s nothing stopping an unscrupulous person from stealing my license number and using it? How am I being protected? I asked the OCOT that and they said ‘that will never happen,’” says Richardson.

The OCOT also intends to work with organizations such as Skills Ontario Canada, high schools and guidance councilors, and participate in job fairs to promote skilled trades as a career choice. But for both Richardson and Ridley, taking on an apprentice isn’t in the cards. Ridley believes the added cost will be a deterrent for young people that often only make minimum wage when they start. And Richardson is wary of what could happen to his own license if something goes wrong with a repair the apprentice does, or worse, the apprentice is caught working on the side to make some extra money.

And while Johnson doesn’t think that $120 per year will deter anyone from getting into the trades, Richardson believes that less is more – those who still pay to keep up their license but don’t practice the trade anymore will probably opt out of becoming an OCOT member. “They should have kept the fees low,” says Richardson. “It doesn’t take an economics major to figure out that a lower annual fee would mean a lot more money in the long run.”

Reid agrees, “This doesn’t make any sense. If you want to attract more tradespeople, why would you add cost and a layer of bureaucracy? We should be removing barriers not building new ones.”

What Ridley would like to see his membership fees going towards, that would help tradespeople, is a portion of it going to a registered pension plan, changes in deductible taxes to allow technicians to write off more for tooling expenses, and covering the costs of professional skill development.

“The College will have an advocacy role to play,” says Johnson. “We’re looking at promoting skilled trades. To do that, we need proper incentives and that could be tax incentives on tools.”

In regards to becoming a member of an organization, Richardson and Ridley think they should be given a choice to join the OCOT, rather than forced into it. And as a member, they also want the ability to have their opinions heard.

Indeed, representing the unique challenges of 150 trades is a huge feat. Johnson says that all of the OCOT meetings are open to the public and posted on its website. And he encourages anyone who wants to get involved to attend their trade board meetings or apply to be on those boards or the board of governors, as those appointments come up regularly.

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