Auto Service World
Feature   January 31, 2013   by CARS Magazine

Repair shops win apprenticeship battle in B.C.

Government acknowledges need for changes. Progressive accreditation no longer the only option.

British Columbia is backing away from its controversial “progressive accreditation” apprenticeship system for automotive service technicians.

The system, which required apprentices to have a sponsor for each year of study, was heavily criticized by independent shop owners, who believed it watered down the value of industry credentials and was unfairly geared to benefit big-box retailers and dealerships.

Critics of progressive accreditation say the number of journeymen graduating as Red Seal technicians in B.C. has plummeted over the past five years.

At a meeting in Prince George, B.C. in December, officials from both the Industry Trade Authority (ITA) and the Automotive Training Standards Association (ATSO) conceded the new system was not having the desired affect on apprenticeship numbers.

They agreed that students should have the option to register one time for a full four-year apprenticeship, rather than have to register anew upon completion of each level.

“This is great news for the independent sector of the auto repair industry,” said Art Wilderman, executive director of the Canadian Independent Automotive Association (CIAA), which lobbied hard against progressive accreditation. “It has taken a lot of effort by independent shop owners, technicians, and college instructors who stepped up to have their voices heard. It is great to know that when we come together we can make the changes that have to be made.”

ATSO made a commitment to make a number of other concessions (see sidebar).

“It’s taken four years of letter writing, meetings, anger, and frustration to get to this point,” said Wilderman. “But with a new president and CEO at the helm of ATSO [Glen Vollhoffer], and with government really listening to us for a change, there’s a new sense of optimism about the program in B.C.”

He said progressive accreditation allowed apprentices to get a certificate of completion following each year of study. The idea was attractive to companies that had no interest in hiring fully trained journeymen, he said. Consequently, there were fewer and fewer apprentices completing four years of study.

“Northern B.C. is likely to graduate 75 students to journeyman status this year, and there would be probably another 30 in the lower mainland, and maybe another 30 elsewhere in the province. So we’re looking at maybe 150 graduates for the year, which is a pretty sad state of affairs,” he said. “By comparison, Alberta cranks out about 450 journeymen a year, and Ontario does about 800.”

He said the program has been particularly hard on northern colleges, which face a greater financial burden with fewer students.

CIAA had lobbied government for years, and things finally started to turn when Pat Bell, the Minister of Jobs and Tourism, got involved.

“He knew about the situation, but I don’t think he realized the impact it was having on our industry until we brought it to his attention,” Wilderman said. “As I understand it, Mr. Bell met several times with ITA and he told them to get this fixed. Automotive was one of the target groups that were grossly under-represented in the province, and he wanted to get those numbers up where they have to be to satisfy public demand.”

While the paperwork hasn’t been finished, aftermarket representatives were happy to get the verbal commitment that things would change.

“One of the key things we wanted was to get rid of the annual registration. And while they didn’t entirely get rid of the old model (of being able to sign up for the program one year at a time) you now have a choice, going in as a student. You can go in for four years, or one year at a time,” he said. “I don’t know why they did that, but I can tell you there’s a lot of emotion attached to the progressive trades model and I don’t think they want to see it disappear entirely. I think they still see it as the future solution for the industry, but they’ve backed down a little.”

Wilderman gives a lot of credit to CIAA board member and northern B.C. sub-committee chairman Tom Simpson of Benchmark Automotive in Prince George who initially sounded the alarm and “championed this campaign with patience and passion.”

Bell happens to be the member of the legislative assembly who represents Prince George.

“This has been a four-year run,” Simpson said. “We’re heading into election time and I think there was some strategy (at the government level) to get this resolved before the voters say who’s going to lead the province.”

The concessions are good for the industry right across the country, he said. “Other provinces seemed poised to maneuver themselves in a similar fashion, and I think they’ll think twice about that now,” he said.

“One thing that really bothered me is when my apprentices would complete a year, their certificate would come in the mail – a Level-1 certificate, or a Level-2 certificate – and it looks exactly like Level-4 certificate. And I’m going, ‘This is wrong!’ If you hung it on the back wall, it looks like a journeyperson’s certificate. The average consumer would walk in the front door and say, ‘Ah, there’s a doctor in the house,’ when truly he was still just an intern.”

Giving ‘interns’ certificates suited some employers who didn’t want their techs fully trained, he said. “They want them minimally certified, so they can be held to a certain level, and can be paid accordingly.”

But the demands of modern auto repair require a minimum of four years of study, he said, and there’s little sense in ‘graduating’ apprentices who have not learned critical elements that come in years three and four.

“We need individuals who know the whole system. Everything is connected these days,” he said. “No one is saying you can’t have a student who goes only partway through the program and exits. What we’re trying to get away from is the apprentice having to grovel in order to get to the next level.”

He called the government’s new position a victory for everybody in the automotive community, including the parts people.

“All along this process, we never said people that moved the apprenticeship program in this direction were ill intentioned,” he said. “We just believed the outcome was not what we needed in this industry.”