Having occasionally chided my friends at universities and colleges for not knowing enough about each other’s systems, I should confess to one of my own blind spots: I have not paid enough attention to apprenticeship. For historical and institutional reasons, apprenticeship in Ontario is often seen as being outside the realm of postsecondary education.So I was especially pleased to spend two days at HEQCO’s recent “Hands On” conferencein the company of apprenticeship administrators, teachers, learners and researchers from Ontario, Alberta, B.C., the United States and Europe.
They were an impressive group. Some of their challenges will be familiar to people in all parts of the higher education system. Instructors who teach the in-class portion of apprenticeship are working to find effective forms of online learning. Administrators are trying to crack down on irresponsible employers who see apprentices as cheap labour and offer minimal learning. Advocates are looking for role models who will encourage more young people to become apprentices. (If you have never seen Leave it to Bryan on HGTV, I can tell you that Bryan Baeumler is a rock star among young construction apprentices.)
Listening to the presentations, I was struck that many of the tough questions facing other parts of postsecondary education are also applicable to apprenticeship.
- If apprenticeship is important, why is it so hard to become an apprentice? A prospective apprentice’s first step is to find an employer who will train him or her. Someone with no prior connections to the trade (who in other contexts we would call a first-generation student) will not have an easy time. Positions in many trades are scarce. There is no pathway comparable to the OUAC and OCAS websites. One conference participant mentioned pulling strings to find a placement for a new entrant. Another observed that, if entry to university or college was as difficult as entry to apprenticeship, we would not have mass higher education in Ontario.
- Does it matter that apprenticeship completion rates are low? Christine Laporte from Statistics Canada cited a recent study by Patrick Coe that found that the completion rate across Canada in the 2000s was about 40%. By comparison, the rate for college postsecondary programs is 65%, and for university first-entry programs 74%. Some conference participants argued that, in fields where certification is not compulsory, non-completers do about as well in the workforce as completers. At least a few participants thought completion would be higher if the credential was a degree rather than a certificate.
- How do apprenticeship programs compare with college and university programs? Apprenticeship is a form of workplace-based learning, as are co-op programs at colleges and universities. How do the inputs and outputs of these programs compare? Would some postsecondary programs be better taught as apprenticeship programs, or vice versa? Does it matter that the number of apprenticeable trades in Ontario is far larger than in either Alberta or B.C., or that the fields of study are much different than in Germany?
- How does apprenticeship align with the needs of the economy? Every university and college is expected to answer this question about its programs, and it is reasonable to ask the same of apprenticeship. On its face, apprenticeship fulfils an important mission in preparing workers for specialized trades, especially in construction and industry. But few data are gathered on graduate outcomes, and so the facts are hard to document. Meanwhile, as in every part of higher education, some programs seem anomalous: one wonders why the largest single apprenticeship program is for call centre agents.
- How do we expand workplace-based education in a competitive and turbulent economy? Every part of the higher education system is grappling with how to provide workplace-based learning at large scale. Large employers are downsizing, and competitive pressures make it more difficult to afford to hire students. The squeeze is affecting apprentices, interns, co-op students, and even law students. Smaller employers could fill the gap, but the logistics of placing and supervising students at hundreds of small employers are a nightmare. Several participants at the conference spoke in favour of financial incentives for employer training, such as Quebec’s levy-grant system.
Amid these hard questions, there were many bright spots. Brandi Jonathan and Kim Radbourne each reported on successes in preparing young people for trades at the Six Nations of the Grand River and Moose Cree First Nation, respectively. Participants from unions, industry and NGOs described new approaches to attracting women and young people to apprenticeship and promoting mobility across provincial lines. Apprenticeship offers an important topic for researchers and policy analysts who want to gain a more complete understanding of how our higher education system works.
David Trick is president of David Trick and Associates Inc., consultants in higher education strategy and management.
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