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Twenty years after the "brain drain" of the 1990s, a new threat to the supply of talent in Canada is apparent. Key industry sectors and leading employers in Canada are warning of a skills shortage and a lack of skilled tradespeople. Others call this a skills "mismatch." Governments are under pressure to enact a range of labour market "interventions," from short-term fixes to immigration to new investment in training and skills upgrading to changes to existing talent support programs.

Canada's failure to graduate enough tradespeople has been a constant for decades. While Canada had nearly 400,000 registered apprentices in 2010, less than 50 per cent went on to obtain their certifications. Most dropouts leave because current policies make it impossible for them to stay.

Apprenticeships are workplace-based training programs that teach students the skills they need in the trades in order to achieve competencies and perform tasks to the industry standard. The training combines alternating periods of on-the-job time (80 to 85 per cent) with technical training (15 to 20 per cent of the time). Technical training can occur at a college, a union training centre, a private trainer or online. From machinists to power line technicians, from steamfitters to sheet metal workers, training institutions of all kinds are needed to deliver the core content, along with the safety protocols of these trades.

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Canadian apprenticeships vary in length by trade and by province, with standard lengths going from two to five years, requiring the regular alternation of work and technical training. The compact between the employer and the trainee is that the apprentice must be released for the training in order to progress to the next level of complexity in the trade.

Once the apprentice has completed the required hours and/or modules for the trade, the apprentice can write the exam for the Certificate of Qualification for the province/territory. Possessing this Certificate makes you a "journeyperson," i.e. a master able to train the next generation of trainees. There are 400 trades professions in Canada. In 55 of these professions, certifications are portable across the country – the Red Seal trades. In the other professions, there is poor portability of prior trades experience across provincial boundaries.

The average starting age of an apprentice is 27. Surveys show that this older average age is often due to the fact that for many tradespeople, these professions are their second or third attempt at a career. Vast numbers of registered apprentices have prior post-secondary experience of some kind, and have turned to the trades later in life, having been poorly advised on their initial career choices.

Entering the trade training cycle does not end their career problems. Governments do not control the intake of apprentices the way they control the intake of post-secondary students. Businesses do. When times are good, employers will take on apprentices. When times are bad, they won't.

Employers prefer apprentices at the third or fourth year of the cycle and entrants into the trades often have difficulty finding employers. Only 19 per cent of skilled trades employers are participating in apprenticeships; the rest of the 81 per cent would rather hire the certified tradesperson rather than investing in the trainee years.

Without creating the enabling conditions for employers to engage in the on-the-job training, there is evidence of employers who "poach" journeypersons or turn to importing talent from abroad. Polytechnics Canada has argued that tax credits could be used to induce employers to invest in this kind of skills training, particularly to encourage certification completion.

Furthermore, in North America, unfortunately, apprentices are treated as employees, rather than learners. Most glaringly, apprentices are not eligible for the same government financial support programs offered university and college undergraduates. When apprentices return for in-class training periods, they receive employment insurance but given their age and the fact that many have families, EI is not sufficient financial support.

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Interestingly, none of these challenges are unique to Canada: other developed and mature economies have faced these shortfalls as well. But the solutions have yet to be translated here. Australia reviewed its entire apprenticeship model very recently and created a National Skills Need List based on detailed and accurate labour market research by the government and a program that provides business skills training and mentoring support for recently graduated apprentices.

In Germany, where the apprenticeship model applies to a much broader set of professions, over 70 per cent of the learning population pursues careers that have industry applications. German apprentices can count on 33 per cent of their time in technical training, compared to 15 per cent for their Canadian counterparts, and yet complete their apprenticeships faster. While Canadian high schools cut shop class, German students gain early exposure to apprenticeships throughout their education.

Beyond funding, there are additional ways in which governments can support registered apprentices. All three levels of government can reward contractors who train apprentices by changing tendering criteria to favour those employers willing to demonstrate their commitment to apprenticeship training. Manitoba is already applying this principle to public tenders, and similar efforts are emerging in Alberta.

Changing the success rate of apprentices requires a rethinking of what it means to be truly educated in the 21st century. The concept of apprenticeship goes back to medieval times, when a trainee learned his craft from a master craftsman. Today, we value that kind of experience transfer when it comes to doctors or lawyers.

Through decades of emphasizing the knowledge economy, the need for invention and research and the earning power of a university education, we have dismissed the earnings possible in professions and vocations that make, build, fix or maintain things, people like electricians or plumbers, the welder and pipefitters needed for the energy sector.

We have disconnected trades training from all other kinds of higher education, believing that the post-industrial economy only needs knowledge workers, highly qualified professionals, graduates of business schools and world class scientists. "Excellence" and "best and brightest" is not applied evenly to the talent born of hands-on and practical experience. Beyond tax credits and incentives, it's this societal bias that needs to change.

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Nobina Robinson is CEO of Polytechnics Canada, an alliance of the country's leading research-intensive colleges, institutes and polytechnics that are also leaders in college delivered trades training. Polytechnics Canada is a member of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.

Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.

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