The government’s response to my letter

Dear Mr. Firth:


I am responding to your email of April 26, 2018, concerning the Government of Canada’s approach to supporting apprenticeship and the skilled trades. I appreciate your sharing your experiences and views on the Government’s measures aimed at increasing entry into apprenticeship.


I especially noted your view that making more apprenticeship opportunities available to young Canadians could be a more effective way to support the development of skilled tradespeople than direct incentives for apprentices.


Many of the Government of Canada’s investments in apprenticeship are aimed at providing support and incentives to ensure there is an appropriate supply of skilled, mobile and certified tradespeople to meet labour market needs. As the average age of entry to apprenticeship in Canada is 28, it is important to address the barriers that prevent youth from fully participating in the Canadian labour market, including the skilled trades.


Measures such as the Apprenticeship Grant help to support apprentices with the challenges they face. Evaluations of programs such as these are conducted every five years in order to monitor performance and results. The latest evaluation of the Apprenticeship Grant indicated that it is a means of offsetting costs for apprentices. Findings from performance measurement exercises help to shape government policy decisions. For example, the introduction in Budget 2018 of the new Apprenticeship Incentive Grant for Women was based on findings pointing to barriers faced by women in participating and succeeding in apprenticeship and the skilled trades.


The Government of Canada also recognizes that employers play a fundamental role in apprenticeship, overseeing 80 to 90 percent of training at the workplace. However, a range of barriers prevent some employers from participating in apprenticeship training, and these barriers can be more difficult for some small businesses. Therefore, in addition to offering a range of individual supports for apprentices, the Government of Canada encourages employers to hire apprentices through the federal Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit.


As you may know, the Government collaborates with the provinces and territories through various fora to address labour market issues. For example, the Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeship, which has managed and delivered the Red Seal Program since the 1950s, is a long-standing and successful partnership between the federal government and provinces and territories. In addition, our government is working with provinces and territories through the Forum of Labour Market Ministers to meet its commitment to improve employer engagement in apprenticeship. I would note, as well, that many of our provincial and territorial partners offer complementary supports and incentives to employers to hire apprentices.


The Government of Canada will take your views into account as we continue to work to improve the apprenticeship supports available to help support a skilled, mobile and certified skilled trades workforce.


Thank you for taking the time to write.


Yours sincerely,






The Honourable Patty Hajdu, P.C., M.P.

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour


Open Letter to Patty Hadju regarding apprenticeships


I’m a skilled trades supervisor covering instrumentation, fire systems/sprinkler systems, gas fitters, and liquid petroleum distribution systems for a senior gold producer. I live a few blocks away from your Red River Road office in Thunder Bay.

I’m writing concerning the approach the government seems to be taking regarding apprenticeships and skilled trades. A common approach I’ve seen relating to skilled trades is making apprenticeships more attractive to young people. It might surprise you to learn that I’m disgusted by the idea of additional government incentives to get into the skilled trades. It makes me literally screaming mad!

Every one of my younger techs illustrate the problem. Every young skilled tradesperson or apprentice I know got their position by first paying for school and going through college. All of us would have loved to be getting paid to learn our trade, but that was a fantasy unavailable to anyone but the intensely lucky or well-connected. Ultimately, some paid to go through school and got an apprenticeship afterwards.

In my case, I paid for room and board in an unfamiliar city for years going to college, in addition to paying for tuition and books. After finishing college, I took the first job I could, at a paper mill in The Pas, Manitoba. The Pas is about 8 hours north of Winnipeg and I didn’t have any family anywhere near there. I eventually successfully got my Certified Engineering Technologist certification, and became a red seal Journeyman Instrumentation and Controls Technician through the Trade Qualifier process.

For many voluntary trades, the Trade Qualifier process creates nearly as many new Journeypersons each year as the apprenticeship path. Every trade qualifier is an individual who paid their way through college, found a job on their own, worked under a journeyman, and challenged the trade exam. That’s a person who wanted an apprenticeship, but couldn’t get one and got their certification outside the apprenticeship system. All those people valued the certification so much they paid their own way through, in spite of being ineligible for any of the grants or other rewards provided to apprentices.

Among myself and my millennial colleagues, most of us ended up with student debt and at the end of the day some of us still ended up going through the reduced wages of a 4 year apprenticeship.

You don’t need to gild a golden ticket! We all would have taken apprenticeships if they were available. Lacking opportunities, we all had to make our own.

There’s a lot of talk out there blaming millennials and the generation after them for the lack of young people in the trades. Obviously young people can’t take opportunities that don’t exist. That’s why the idea of making apprenticeships more enticing for young people is so offensive: These people already won the lottery by getting a rare and precious opportunity. Every apprenticeship will be filled, without question.

Some people look at the non completion rate of apprenticeships and see that as a problem. In reality, it’s a feature, not a bug. A typical engineering technician, engineering technology, or engineering program will have a high attrition rate because some people discover they aren’t cut out for the field they chose. The same is true of apprenticeships; The process needs to allow lots of hiring and lots of attrition until, after 4 years, the tradespeople who are left are the best and brightest.

What we need is a ‘shotgun approach’. Encourage companies to hire lots of apprentices early on in all trades and keep the cream of the crop. Make sure the opportunities are there, and there will be young people in the trades. If there’s no obvious way into the trades for young people, companies are going to continue to see the negative consequences as the workforce ages and retires. Companies are fighting over a shrinking supply of 50 and 60 year old tradespeople. Many of those tradespeople got into the trades through real apprenticeships where companies took a chance on young men and women.

Instead of trying to make applying for apprenticeships more appealing for young people, we need to make taking a chance on young apprentices more appealing to companies. Spend whatever we would have on incentives for apprentices on incentives for creating more apprenticeship positions! Until we start creating the next generation of Journeypersons, Canadian industry will continue to struggle to attract the talent they need.

Thank you,

Jason Firth


The Ontario College of Trades is being wound down

I’m Jason Firth.

This week, I read about the news that the Ontario College of Trades is being wound down, to be shut down in 2019.

As a certified tradesman, I’m a little mixed on this, but mostly I’m happy to see it happen.

In every other province, the government administers voluntary trades, and provides a piece of paper saying you’re a certified tradesperson at the end. You pay for the test, you pay for the piece of paper, but then the government is done with the process. You are a journeyman forever. By contrast, the Ontario College of Trades was charging over $100/yr for the privilege of putting your name on a list and sending you a replacement sticker for your piece of paper saying it’s still valid for another year.

This isn’t unprecedented. OACETT and other related associations require an annual payment as well to maintain your certification. However, there’s one big difference in my view: Associations of Certified Engineering Technologists and Technicians provide value to the public and value to certified members for the money. I’ve had opportunities to go to seminars, to participate in really cool activities for National Engineering Month, and more. Also, we vote on our leadership, and get to participate in the rule making process.

By contrast, the Ontario College of Trades doesn’t provide value to tradespeople. I never got any opportunities from the College, only a bill. There were no chances to improve, no chances to participate (all the important people in the College of Trades were appointees, not elected by the membership).

And then there’s the public. In theory, the College of Trades is supposed to give the public somewhere to complain about tradespeople who engage in poor workmanship or who violate the college of trades code of ethics. In practice, this never did happen.

With hundreds of thousands of members each paying over $100 a year, they had a huge pot of money, but they didn’t use it to make the world better. The handful of prosecutions by the college over the years were simply not worth the absurd cost of each one.

In my opinion, the world is better off with this legislation removed. Maybe in the future an association for skilled tradespeople can exist. However, it would have to look a lot different than the college of trades.

Thanks for Reading!


ProComSol DevCom2000 first impressions

I’m Jason Firth.

Modern electronic instruments are almost never purely analog devices anymore.

The reason is really simple: When you’re dealing with analog signals, you’re constantly worrying about introducing error. Every trace on a circuit board, every op-amp, every transistor has the chance to introduce non-linearity, noise, or to mess up your scaling. By contrast, once you digitize your signal, that’s it — your signal is what your signal is, and from there you can process it or analyze it however you like without degrading the signal, until you spit out your signal, either through a fieldbus or through an analog signalling standard like 4-20mA.

If you have an instrument with a processor that communicates using a 4-20mA analog signal, then you’re sort of out of luck with respect to advanced configuration and diagnostics over that line, right?

Not exactly. Since a 4-20mA signal is very slow, and most analog input devices have filtering built-in to read only that fairly slow signal, you can overlay a very fast signal on top of the 4-20mA. A communications protocol called HART overlays a 300 baud analog modem signal (Remember modems?) on top of the 4-20mA, allowing the instrument and a user interface to communicate digital data.

There are 2 main standards for device drivers for communicating with HART devices: DTMs(Device Type Managers), and DDs(Device Descriptions). DTMs function primarily with a piece of software called “PactWARE”, whereas DDs are used on Rosemount HART communicators such as the 475.

HART communicators are nice because they are single purpose devices: They do one thing, and presumably they do it well. However; there are benefits to using a PC for communicating with instruments. PCs have virtually unlimited storage space, memory, and CPU power compared to a HART communicator. They have full network capabilities. They also have a much larger screen and keyboard.

I’m a fan of instrument techs having their own fully powered laptop. Windows allows file shares to be automatically synchronized and made available off-line, so a technician can make a change in the field and save it to their file share, then that change will be available for any other technician who works on that instrument, and it’s available for archival use by engineering groups, and it can be backed up to redundant drives to ensure its future availability.

Now, two well-known options are called PactWARE and Emerson AMS. There are some problems with each.

Both share the problem that they really want to take over your plant. They’re not designed for a technician’s PC, they’re designed to be run on a server handling your entire plant using a HART enabled analog input card or a HART multiplexer, so they’re a bit unweildly. AMS is far too expensive to be practical as a simple tool for a laptop. PactWARE is free, but it takes a dozen clicks to connect to an instrument.

Another problem is drivers. The most common standard interface for HART devices is has standardized on the “dd” standard, which is platform agnostic, but PactWARE uses the DTM standard, which is a Windows program designed to fit into the software.

One possible solution is ProComSol DevCom2000. ProComSol puts this hardware out for $800, so it’s still fairly expensive, but it’s far less expensive than an Emerson 475 field communicator.

I recently acquired a copy, and figured I’d show give first impressions, out of the box. I’m going to go into a bit of ostensibly trivial detail, just to give a full idea of what you can expect.

The software is available as a digital download.

Opening the installer package starts initialization.

Then you see a standard “Let’s get started”

Next, accept the license agreement.

Select your installation folder

Confirm your settings

The installation will start working.

After it is done, it will prompt you to finish.

DevCom2000 will ask you what you’d like to do on the first install. We’re going to activate it.

Activation can be done over the phone with a representative, or online. We’re going to activate online.

Enter your code and password.

It will take a moment to connect to the server.

After connecting, activation will be complete.

When you start DevCom2000, the program immediately tries to connect to a HART device.

You can purchase a USB, RS-232, or Bluetooth dongle from ProComSol to connect to a HART device, or you can use a standard dongle like the Mactek Viator.

In addition, you can connect to a wireless HART gateway like that Emerson Smart Wireless Gateway.

The configuration is set to COM99, so it won’t connect the first time.

So we open the basic options to configure our communication device.

Here’s the second tab of the settings, regarding search.

This is the final tab of settings, advanced settings.

If you configured an IP HART gateway, upon connection you’ll be asked to select which of the instruments you’d like to use.

Once you’re connected, there’s a navigation tree on the left, and the relevant values and methods are shown on the right.

dd drivers include variables and methods. Variables are single points of data that can be read, and some can be written. Methods are simple programs which allow the automation of certain tasks. This is an example of a method running.

This is an example of some read-only variables.

Besides what I’ve shown, DevCom2000 has the ability to export the full configuration of a device as a pdf file. This pdf file can be printed to provide a hard copy of device configurations.

Remarkably, it also seems to have the ability to read back that file, and write the values into an instrument.

This was just a quick look, but it covers a lot of the main elements of the program. If I see any requests for more, I may write more on this topic later.

Thanks for reading!


Siemens WS300 teardown

Siemens WS300 teardown

I’m Jason Firth.

I had an opportunity recently to tear apart a Siemens WS300.

I was hoping to troubleshoot a problem with it, and in the process I learned a bit about how they were put together.

Here you can see the mechanical components. The thick metal shaft is the part that sticks out of the sensor. It has a single bearing (the big round circular thing with the blue plastic) held in place by a retaining clip. Next, there was the circular piece of metal, and another bearing, which is then held in place with another retaining clip. The shaft with the bearings slides into the housing, and is held in place by the large retaining clip. The very end, where the shaft becomes small, has a little metal pin in it, which acts like a handle.

The orange part of the coupling has a slot cut in it, which slides over the shaft, holding onto it. Then, the orange part connects to the black coupling, which is held onto the binary encoder. The encoder is held to the circuit board with the metal clip, which screws onto the board, and holds the encoder with the large nut and locking washer.

The rotary encoder might look like a resistive potentiometer, but it is something a bit more complicated. Instead of changing from 0 to 100% resistance over the course of its range, it consists of a pair of lines which change differently in response to rotating in different directions.

Here’s the circuit board. Let’s look at some of the components:

There’s a LM317. This is an adjustable voltage regulator.

The AC74 looks like a dual flip flop chip (the model number isn’t exactly the same, so it’s possible it isn’t the right chip). This makes sense, because the output of this transmitter is a pair of signals: one changes when you turn the sensor in one direction, the other changes when you turn the sensor in the other direction. This chip is probably where our final logic comes from.

There are two transistors, Q1 and Q2. These probably take the logic signals from the AC74 and convert it into a full voltage signal.

The HC132A chip seems to be a quad NAND gate. You can create a lot of different logic using a few NAND chips, so this makes sense.

Knowing what these parts are, we now have a general idea how this works: The input voltage is regulated down, then some NAND gates and flip flops are combined to provide a pair of pulse outputs.

We determined that the rotary encoder was destroyed, since we now understood how to feed +5v signals to force the board to operate we were able to confirm that the electronics functioned and the sensor did not.

I hope you found this look at a common instrument as interesting as I did.

Thanks for reading!


Omega Engineering got smart

December 18, 2014

I’m Jason Firth.

We set up some Omega wireless temperature transmitters the other day, and I thought the method they used to get wireless connectivity is quite clever.

Take a look for yourself:

That’s an XBee Pro wireless transceiver.

XBee is a wireless communication standard for instrumentation that’s been made popular thanks to its association with Arduino microcontrollers. This popularity means that the chips are easy to acquire, and that debugging tools are simple to find and quite inexpensive.

Using an established protocol probably made their development costs way lower, and it also makes this whole system a lot more repairable. Really smart move, from where I’m standing.

Thanks for reading!

XBee Data Sheet

XBee video presentation