The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on people all over the world and Ontario is no exception. While some were able to shift to working from home, many people lost their jobs; the province’s unemployment rate more than doubled from 5.5% in February to 13.6% in May. As we continue to navigate life under a pandemic and hopefully begin the move toward recovery, it is apparent that a return to normalcy will not come quickly.
With the release of the provincial budget, Ontario’s government has made a commitment to helping people retrain and upgrade their skills though microcredentials, employment services and training programs which include apprenticeships. Included in the budget announcement was the Skilled Trades Strategy, which aims to modernize Ontario’s skilled trades and apprenticeship system by breaking stigmas, simplifying the system and promoting employer participation.
Despite being an essential part of Ontario’s postsecondary education system, apprenticeship training is not well understood, even within the sector. Furthermore, it is often overlooked when we think about viable and lucrative career paths for Ontario students. Within this context, HEQCO undertook research to gain insight into the world of apprentices in Ontario. Our deep dive into Statistics Canada data about apprentices revealed a lot about this crucial sector of Ontario’s education and training system.
Our overall takeaway is that if we wish to make meaningful improvements to the apprenticeship system — whether related to access or completion — a program-by-program approach is essential. Our work also highlights that the trades can offer well-paid and in-demand career paths that match or exceed many college and university programs. This raises the question of why the apprenticeship system is not included more often in discussions of the postsecondary system and if that may change in light of recent government initiatives.
Many new questions have emerged from our work. These are three of the most pressing issues that we were left with after reviewing our findings and the larger discourse occurring in government about the trades:
- Why is there so much variation in completion rates? Completion rates are highly variable between programs. Apprentices reported a consortium of specific challenges which may be preventing them from completing their programs. Many former apprentices practice their trade even if they didn’t complete their program and it is important to note that some report similar earnings to their counterparts who completed. Understanding how the challenges faced by apprentices affect their ability or desire to complete their program could lead to positive change.
- Are we facing a looming shortage of trades workers? There has been a lot of public discussion about the aging of the workforce in the trades. While it is true that some trades are heavily dominated by older workers, concerns about a future shortage of tradespeople may also speak to broader changes in Ontario’s economy. Future studies on labour shortages in the trades should consider how enrolment trends, the future of work, aging and even regional industries are affecting our perception of this issue.
- Who is accessing jobs in the trades and how could access be improved? There is significant imbalance and underrepresentation of some demographic groups among the trades. This is especially true for women and visible minorities. Understanding why access remains an issue in certain trades could inform future recruitment efforts and be the key to encouraging a broader swath of Ontarians to pursue careers in the trades.
The data we used, from the Canadian Census, the Longitudinal and International Study of Adults and the National Apprenticeship Survey, was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic so we can’t yet know how these findings will be affected by pandemic-related disruptions. Many of the issues impacting colleges and universities have also affected apprenticeship programs, such as the closure of workplaces and the move to online learning. Early indications from Statistics Canada are very troubling for apprenticeship and the skilled trades. For example, 53% of students in trade programs stated they had some courses cancelled or postponed in the spring, more than double the number of students in science, humanities, education or law programs. Additionally, 13% of students in trade programs stated they were unable to complete their courses when they moved online, more than any other field of study. In light of job losses experienced during this pandemic, and the challenges current apprentices are facing, the urgency of these early findings cannot be understated.
As more individuals continue on a path of lifelong learning, reskilling or skill development to meet the demands of a rapidly changing labor market, we must ensure that all parts of our education and training system, including apprenticeship, are fully supported.
Ken Chatoor is a senior researcher at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.