Quebec program to train more construction workers delayed by teacher strikes

Nearly a quarter of the students enrolled in Quebec's accelerated and paid construction training program did not start classes in January as planned.

Scheduled to start classes in January, a quarter of students to begin as late as March

Construction workers work at a downtown site.
Quebec is aiming to train people in five positions: carpenter-joiners, tinsmiths, mechanical excavator operators, heavy-equipment operators and refrigeration mechanics. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The Coalition Avenir Québec government's plan to offset the labour shortage in the construction industry by this summer hit a snag when a massive teachers' strike shuttered hundreds of schools for weeks on end late last year. 

The government set up an accelerated and paid training program in October to recruit between 4,000 to 5,000 new construction workers to the industry. 

But while all courses were scheduled to start in January, a quarter of registered students will only begin classes this month or as late as March, Radio-Canada has learned.

Students enrolled in a construction equipment operator course at the Centre de services scolaires de Montréal (CSSDM) received an e-mail confirming their admission on Dec. 20, which said training was scheduled to begin Jan. 9. 

"However, we wish to inform you that due to the current strike situation in the Quebec education sector, the start of training may be postponed to a later date," the email read. 

Nearly a quarter of the students enrolled in the government's fast-track program — 1,146 out of 4,102 — did not start classes in January as planned.

Last week, Radio-Canada obtained a copy of an exchange between one of those students and an administrative manager for the program. 

The student said they have a house and a child and need to know whether they should be looking for a job. They gave up theirs at the beginning of the year, expecting to be able to get by on the weekly salary of $750 during the four-to-six month certification program. 

In response, the administrative manager said they'd received no new information about when the training would start. 

Strike had big impact on logistics

The CSSDM confirmed that some courses have fallen behind schedule and that students may have to wait until the end of March before starting classes.

"The startup period for new groups in the construction equipment operator program has been extended and will last until March 29, 2024," said CSSDM spokesperson Alain Perron. 

The Education Ministry said 70 groups started the construction equipment operator program in January and the first week of February, while 15 groups will start by the end of March.

"The vast majority of cohorts started in January as planned," said Marjorie Ménard, director of educational affairs at the Fédération des centres de services scolaires du Québec (FCSSQ). 

"We have around 2,956 students in the network who have already started their training," she said. "There are [...] more to come."

The accelerated training courses last on average around five months, which means that a person starting the course in March would graduate in August.

When he announced the initiative last fall, Premier François Legault said he hoped to have the trainees ready for the job sites by summer of 2024.

"The strike has really had an impact on educational organization," said Ménard, saying capacity in classrooms, laboratories and workshops meant that not everyone could participate in the programs at the same time. 

She said vocational training centres offering the construction equipment operator course faced additional obstacles. 

"It's a challenge renting equipment and machinery," said Ménard. "It's also a challenge in terms of terrain, to get access to a site where we can offer the practical part of the training."

Other teaching establishments also cited space issues, workshop rentals and equipment delivery delays as reasons for the backlog.

Moreover, at least two training courses were cancelled altogether for lack of teaching staff.

Nearly 47,000 people have applied for admission to one of the courses under the fast-track, paid training program. 

Quebec is aiming to train people in five positions: carpenter-joiners, tinsmiths, mechanical excavator operators, heavy-equipment operators and refrigeration mechanics.

based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Sébastien Desrosiers