Guest Commentary

Malcolm Allen

Full Work For Full Pay

I am an industrial electrician. My father was a shipwright. My grandfather worked in a shipyard, and my great-grandfather was a bricklayer. Trades built our society, but we’ve dismantled apprenticeship programs and banished shop class from high schools.

This must change. We have to show young Canadians this is work that can make you proud – interesting, complicated, worthwhile work that takes skill and patience.

I was born in Scotland. We lived in a council house in Glasgow, a tenement building black from the soot and ash of the coal fires. We had a two-room apartment. Mother and Father slept in an alcove, but thought we were better off than neighbours who had to share a toilet. We had our own – no bathtub, but a toilet.

My parents had a Presbyterian work ethic: you must put in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. There was pride in work, too – that any job worth doing must be done well. As a boy my father taught me how to do plumbing, electrical and carpentry jobs. When we emigrated to Canada in 1963, he taught me to frame and finish the bedrooms downstairs where the five children would sleep.

I went to trades school. They called us “tech guys”, the ones who got their fingernails dirty in class. I enjoyed it! In that era you could become an auto mechanic and find a good job after Grade Ten; or you could take a four-year technical program that took you into industrial work after Grade 12. A five-year program took you to university, perhaps engineering.

There is always a competitive tension between tradespeople and engineers: they were the planners, we were the do-ers. Dad used to remark, “Doesn’t matter what they say – we’ll make it work!”

Yet my father didn’t want me to work in a factory. He had the immigrant’s dream of a university education for his children, to have the first generation of Allens attend a fine school and obtain a degree.

I received degrees in history and political science at Brock University and the University of Alberta, but came home to work at General Motors. I worked at the St. Catharines engine plant in the day and studied at night, and completed my industrial electrical apprenticeship in four years.

Is blue-collar work less valued than white-collar work? The prejudice exists, though the reality is electricians find fulfilling work and a high income to support a family.

There are not many trades in Parliament. Politics is presumed to be the business of professionals, but the attitude is self-imposed. We even had a prime minister who was a tradesman – Alexander Mackenzie (1873-8), a stonecutter. I defy anyone to suggest a tradesperson is not a professional.

I hope trades make a revival. They are expensive programs for companies and workers, but represent an investment that brings lifelong dividends.

(Editor’s note: the author is former two-term New Democrat MP for Welland, Ont., and a member of the Canadian Auto Workers union for 32 years.)

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