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innovation in education

Brooklyn Baleja, now at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C., took part in a program that lets high-school students take trades training or arts and science classes from postsecondary institutions.CHAD HIPOLITO for/The Globe and Mail

Brooklyn Baleja's first day of college came earlier than for most students. The 18-year-old, who began studying to be a support teacher at Camosun College this fall, didn't have to wait until the September after high-school graduation to get started.

Last year, while still a Grade 12 student at Claremont Secondary School in Victoria, she took a college-level intro psychology class taught by a professor.

Ms. Baleja says the experience helped her prepare for the real world. "The course gave me a taste of what college is like − the workload and required independence," she says, days before starting classes this September. "Now I'm more excited than nervous."

Ms. Baleja is part of an innovative dual-credit program that allows high school students to begin trades training or take arts and science classes from postsecondary institutions. The program is but one example of moves in B.C. and Ontario to make the transition into life after high school easier on students.

"Right now Grade 12 ends and you enter a new system; there's a line you have to cross and it's very black and white," says Kelly Betts, transition co-ordinator at Camosun, in Victoria. "This is a model for how education systems can work closely together to help students find career paths and transition into work and higher education effectively."

Camosun has offered opportunities for high school students to explore trades training for a decade and has recently added arts and science courses to the mix. The initiative is in part a response to concerns about high school graduates entering the work force or higher education unprepared.

Employers themselves say they feel this skills gap. Seventy-two per cent of executives perceived a gap between the skills they sought and what job seekers had to offer, according to a recent survey of business owners and executives by the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling. Yet fewer than half of those surveyed believed it was industries' responsibility to pick up the slack.

Indeed, the numbers show Canadian employers are lagging in this regard. Canadian adults spend fewer hours in job-related training than other OECD countries such as Denmark, Belgium, Finland and Australia. According to a report published this year by The Conference Board of Canada, employer spending on training and development has fallen significantly in the past two decades: to $705 in 2013 from $1,207 per employee in 1993.

Janet Lane is the director of the Centre for Human Capital Policy at the Canada West Foundation, which recently released a report, Talent is Not Enough, on the skills gap in Alberta. What they heard from employers mirrored national findings; closing this gap, the report concluded, requires co-operation between industry and the education system.

Ms. Lane says that companies are essentially downloading the cost of training onto the education system. "We are spending less on training at a time when the skills-demand is growing," she says. "Employers can't hire their way out of this problem." Ms. Lane believes this pressure has led to increased co-ops and work placement programs at universities and colleges, and now more efforts to increase training at the high school level.

Ontario has made a concerted effort to do just this. In 2003, the province introduced the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program. At the time, 30 per cent of Ontario Grade 9 students dropped out before finishing high school. The program, which gives students credit for pursuing skills training within a field, was designed to provide options for those who aren't university bound. The ministry of education credits it with raising the provincial high school graduation rate to 83 per cent from 68 per cent over the past decade.

For Jeffrey Fines, who graduated last year from Bradford District High School in Bradford, Ont., the SHSM was a match made in heaven. He comes from a long line of carpenters and always knew that was what he wanted to do as well. "Even coming out of public school I had my heart set on carpentry," he explains.

Mr. Fines says a guidance counsellor encouraged him to check out the program, which was offered in his school in Grades 11 and 12. He took regular classes – math, English, biology – but had special assignments. In English class, for example, while reading a book about a prisoner, he got to design blueprints for the prison in which the fictional character lived. He also got to take time outside of class to do workplace safety courses specific to the construction trade.

Now, working full-time for a home restoration company in Barrie, he says he's got more first-aid and workplace safety qualifications than most on his crew – and he's eager for more. Learning skills that were relevant to his future trade while still in high school, he says, inspired him to "go out and attack more knowledge."

Today, prepping students for life after graduation is happening even sooner than high school. Gail Forsyth is the director of the Centre for Student Success at Wilfrid Laurier University, which last year launched a pilot program called JumpStart to Higher Education. The program offers workshops in Grade 7 and 8 classes at Waterloo-area schools that have lower numbers of students pursuing postsecondary education. The workshops walk students through their options: apprenticeships, co-op programs, college and university. The goal, explains Ms. Forsyth, is to get students thinking about what path might be right for them, and tailor their high school education accordingly.

Ms. Forsyth says this is an important conversation to have before high school, especially since Ontario scrapped the OAC program – an optional fifth year in which students could take academically advanced courses required by universities. Now, students have to pick an academic track sooner or risk "doors closing fairly quickly" if they decide later they want to pursue university but don't have the necessary credits. Also, students in Grade 7 and 8 are at a stage where they're beginning to crystallize what they might want to do, she says. "We really should be focusing on the younger years."

Ms. Forsyth says she wants students – and parents – to be aware of financial incentives that can help reduce the financial burden of university if they decide to go that route, but also understand that "postsecondary is not just university."

"In the end, we want them to pursue something and feel good about what they're doing."