Alberta union challenges credentials of some foreign industrial electricians

Federal government's regulation of Red Seal qualifications draws skepticism

The electricians' trade union in Alberta is screening some new immigrants because of concerns over certification.

Some Chinese immigrants are seeking high-paying employment on oilsands projects as electricians, but the union doesn't trust the federal government's regulation of Red Seal qualifications.

"People from outside Canada come for a better life. They go to Ontario and say they were qualified as electricians and are allowed to challenge the provincial Red Seal," said Tim Brower, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 424.

Most of immigrant workers are qualified electricians, who write the electricians trade exams in Ontario and trade in their certificates for the equivalent document in Alberta.

However, an increasing number of the workers obtained their diplomas without gaining the proper experience.

According to the union, some of these newly ticketed electricians have never been trained properly.

"Some of these people are good and have qualifications. Some people have never been qualified or on a construction site in their lives," he said.

The Alberta Ministry of Advanced Education and Technology confirmed that they have suspended the acceptance of all industrial electrician certificates issued from outside Alberta.

"There was criticism of certified industrial engineers coming in from Ontario," said Donna McColl, assistant director of communication with the Ministry of Advanced Education and Technology.

"Questions were asked about the qualifications of some folks on the job site. The Red Seal certification was obtained in Ontario from a certain organization and that organization is currently under investigation."

According to Brower, there is a company in Ontario that teaches people to challenge the provincial Red Seal exam, with the help of an interpreter.

However, after these electricians are hired, they no longer have the assistance of an interpreter.

For some of these workers, it also became clear that they were not qualified construction electricians.

"The school in Ontario was training people to challenge the exam and giving them a road map to Alberta," he said.

In response to the situation, the IBEW is checking the references and the work histories of Chinese and Indian immigrants, before they obtain jobs in the Alberta oilsands.

"We have always trusted the government to make sure that a high standard is maintained, but we can't trust the government anymore," said Brower.

"We have to make sure they are qualified electricians. There is a safety concern here, because we don't want anybody to get injured."

The province is more strict about certification.

"Alberta has more stringent pre-screening and follow up on credentials," said Brower. "They can't challenge the Red Seal with an interpreter who is qualified in that trade."

McColl said that the matter is still under investigation, but the ministry has been holding all applications for equivalency for the industrial electrician since February.

However, this move is not enough for some.

"The government has stopped issuing equivalencies, but they are still not going out looking for people to disqualify," said Brower, who added he believes there could already be hundreds of unqualified people working in the province.

A spokesman for the Alberta Federation of Labour said that this problem may extend to other trades.

"The provincial government is only stepping in to stop certification from out of province for the electrical trades," said Gil McGowan, AFL president.

"They are not doing it for the other trades. I have a serious concern about these type of outfits that are diploma mills. They are not giving workers the skills needed on the work sites, but just show them how to pass the Red Seal certification exam."

McGowan said he wants every provincial government in Canada to crack down quickly on these schools, because they undermine the system of trade evaluation and certification.

Journal of Commerce, Mon June 30 2008
Byline: Richard Gilbert

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