This month, I had planned to give a call to two good shops who were “finalists” in the 2001 SSGM Garage of the Year award, (I’ll talk more about them next month), but it’s Budget time, and I’m extremely disappointed. Yes, it’s about “Tool Tax”. How have they addressed the skilled trades issue in our industry? With a miniscule tax credit. And how small is it? According to a major tool supplier, the median annual tool purchase by Canadian apprentice technicians is $2600, not the $5000 quoted by the Budget document’s example. Based on reasonable estimates of apprentice salaries in Canada, the actual amount that will end up in the tech’s pocket is around $260. Let’s hope they don’t spend it all in one place. While it’s less than improbable that Finance Minister Martin reads the automotive trades, if you are reading, Minister, please consider the following realities:
1. Apprentice automotive technicians are not tax lawyers. A small boost to their tax position does nothing to help them procure the tools they need, because they have to earn the money and buy the tools to get the credit. Retroactive cash doesn’t address tool costs as a barrier to entry into the trade. Of course, without the tools, they can’t get the job, a classic “Catch-22”.
2. The amount of the credit is so small, that it won’t matter. An apprentice will need $3000-$4000 worth of tools just to get started, so a five to ten percent bail-back at year-end is of minimal help to apprentices who have incomes barely sufficient to keep up with the need for ever more sophisticated equipment.
3. Tool-tax relief is only a tiny component of the solution to this pressing problem, yet there seems to be little interest in solving the real issues that keep young people out of the trade. Major unaddressed factors are a poor professional image, low relative wages, unattractive working conditions, and the lack of incentives for employers to hire and train apprentices.
4. The increased funding for sector councils and tax breaks for adult basic and EI retraining will do little to solve the shortage, which requires an infusion of young people to stabilize the supply. Retraining 45 year-olds is a good thing, but they won’t fill the gaps.
If you want my opinion, Mr. Martin, the solution to this problem is not complex. Start by taking control of both trade school curriculum and day-to-day operations. Establish national programs leading to nation certifications. Then enforce those certifications so that those technicians can work anywhere in Canada without question. Continue by incorporating tools and necessary equipment into the training program, so that those graduates emerge with the necessary tools, ready to work. Source bulk buys of standardized apprentice tool sets by open tender, and incorporate the cost into tuition, which can be financed through the conventional student loans programs, or, better yet, paid by a system geared to income. Can’t wrest control over training from the provinces on Constitutional grounds? This is a national economic crisis; compared to wage and price controls in the ‘Seventies, this would sail past a Supreme Court challenge. In the meantime, don’t expect this Budget measure to solve the skilled trades problem. It’s a small down payment.