I was looking at some apprenticeship statistics in a few OECD countries the other day, and I noticed yet another way in which Canada seems to be missing the boat.
It’s not just that our ratio of on-the-job training to classroom training is especially elevated, for no apparent reason. And it’s not just that our apprenticeships last longer than those in other countries, for no apparent reason. It’s that our ideas about which occupations are apprenticeable are stuck in the world of medieval craft-guilds. Virtually all other countries that are serious about apprenticeship programming are finding ways to extend apprenticeships to retail, banking, and health care, but not us.
If you’ve been paying close attention to the apprenticeship file, it’s likely that you’ll have heard some laudatory murmurings about Australia over the last few years, something to the effect of: they doubled the number of apprenticeships; isn’t it great that somebody “gets it”; etc. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that what Australia did was to expand the system of apprenticeships into fields where they had not previously been, mainly in the retail business. The actual number of apprentices in the trades barely increased. The same thing happened in Finland, where enrolments tripled in the early 1990s when apprenticeships were extended into areas like health care, administration, and tourism.
Or take Germany, home of the famed “Dual System” of apprenticeships that everyone loves so much. Of the top ten apprenticeship occupations, five – retail sales, office administration, business administration, medical administration, and wholesale/export sales – are not apprenticeable trades in Canada. Indeed, only about 40% of German apprentices are in the traditional trades, which means that the number of trades apprentices per capita in Canada is probably about equal to, or even slightly higher than, what it is in Germany.
Back home, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum (CAF), which ostensibly is an organization to promote a non-occupationally-specific form of learning, defines apprenticeship as follows: “Apprenticeship is a workplace-based program that teaches people the skills they need in the trades (emphasis mine) to achieve competencies and perform tasks to industry standards.” Federal and provincial government mouth the same lines.
Our national apprenticeship policies rest on a deliberate conflation of apprenticeships and human resource development for the construction, energy, and natural resources sectors. In Canada, apprenticeships = trades. Period. But if we genuinely believe apprenticeships are a good way to improve the level of skills in the economy, why restrict them to only those sectors of the economy which existed in the 19th century? Why not emulate the global leaders in apprenticeships, and find ways to extend this form of learning into the service sectors which will dominate the 21st century?