A cutting-edge training model

By Marco Procaccini

Recently retired training coordinator Michael is leaving an important legacy for members of Teamsters Local 213.

High-quality, cutting-edge skills training is a key to survival in today’s economy. And labour unions shouldn’t wait for governments to get on the ball, they have to do it themselves.

That’s what Mike Evans has to say. He’s held the position for the last seven years and has made his mark by updating the training program, started in 1946, and moving it almost entirely online – one of the first unions in B.C. to do so on such a large scale and especially novel among those in construction.

The school was housed in a physical structure, first in Maple Ridge then in Sardis, when Evans took the helm. “I was actually first hired to close the old school and start to move the program online,” he said. “Since then, we’ve had about 20 times the number of students go through our courses than we had before going online. We have a full catalogue of courses that any member can take and at any time they need or want to.”

Members take courses on their personal computers and, by registering with the training school, have personal profiles set up.

When they complete courses, their certifications are uploaded to their profiles automatically. “There’s no need to have a classroom,” Evans said. “The online structure means we can train people immediately. Qualifications are a moving target, changing with every job and project, and we have to be able to respond quickly. Members can also take courses whenever they want, at their convenience.”

Prior to the commencement of a major project, skill requirements and the specific trades are worked out in negotiating and planning meetings between union reps and signatory contractors. “Say we need a half-dozen guys to work on specific jobs on a pipeline,” he said.

“There are many safety certifications a person needs to have before they can do the work. This way, they can get the training immediately. To try to book this through a classroom would be absurd.”

Several hundred Local 213 members have taken over 1,500 classes since the online format was introduced. With the program now on “good footing,” he and his replacement Rob Duff are looking to expand the school’s offerings with a mobile component – a trailer unit equipped with driving simulators and online access that can visit job sites around the province.

“It’s time to take it on the road,” Evans said. “With this format, there’s no such thing as a cancelled class or sick instructor or missing a course due to work or illness. It doesn’t matter if it’s a low-bed (truck), a bus or a fuel truck someone needs to get certified for. In heavy construction, you often need at least a half-dozen certifications, or more if you’re doing some specialized work. This
way you can get the training right away.”

Evans said more unions are making efforts to fund their own training and apprenticeship programs in the face of loss of support from anti-worker governments and non-union contractor lobbies – with promising results.

“Look at the stats to see for yourself,” he said. “Applicants at that ITA (the BC government-sponsored Industry Training Authority) only have about a 15 per cent completion rate. We get about an 85 per cent completion rate at the union schools. “What we need is to bring back compulsory trades training,” he added. “We had 11 compulsory certified trades in B.C. until 2001.”

The BC Liberal regime, responding to demands by lobbyists for the non-union construction contractors, eliminated many of them in 2002. “B.C. is the only province in Canada that doesn’t have them.” Evans is scheduled to retire in June. While his legacy in pioneering online full-access training for Local 213 is more than established, he’s not ready to give up his role as a labour activist and advocate for working people.

“I plan to nap for the first six months,” he said. “I will do some computer work. But what I really want to do is credit management, especially credit counselling. It’s my hobby.”

Personal debt among working-class families is skyrocketing as wages continue to lag behind the cost of living, Evans said, and the need for credit counselling for working people has become critical. He has witnessed both union colleagues and his extended family experience significant credit problems.

“Too many people seem to determine whether something is affordable based on if they can meet the debt payments,” he said. “It’s too easy for people to get into trouble.” He plans to offer counselling as a volunteer.