Canada's Employment Minister says parents and teachers who influence the educational choices of the country's youth must get past the idea that university is the only ticket to a lucrative and meaningful career.
Jason Kenney wrapped up a five-day skills mission Friday to Germany and England with Saskatchewan's minister of higher education as well as nearly 30 representatives of provinces, business, labour and educational organizations.
In both countries, Mr. Kenney told reporters in a teleconference from London, trades and apprenticeships are reducing youth unemployment and giving recent high-school grads the skills they need to find a good-paying job.
"We see a 14-per-cent youth unemployment rate – twice as high as the average unemployment rate – in Canada, which is unacceptable in and of itself," said Mr. Kenney, "but it's particularly unacceptable given that most employers tell us their biggest challenge is finding an adequate number of the people to fill job openings, certainly in particular regions and industries."
There is pressure on many recent high school graduates to head to university rather than a skilled trade and Mr. Kenney says he and the others on his mission spent considerable time discussing how to change that mind-set.
"There is no doubt that university academic education, on the whole, is a good preparation and in most cases leads to good livelihoods," said Mr. Kenney. "But it's equally true that technical and vocational training can lead to good outcomes and fruitful lives for young people to realize their potential. And, in many cases, what we're seeing here in Europe is that young people who complete apprenticeable trade programs end up doing better on the whole than generic average university grads."
In Germany, for instance, 60 per cent of young people leaving high school go into vocational education, which typically means a paid apprenticeship program. The average age in Germany of someone completing their apprenticeship is 19, as opposed to 25 in Canada, said Mr. Kenney, and 90 per cent of those apprentices get immediate placements.
In the United Kingdom, he said, someone who completes an apprenticeship program can expect to make 150,000 more British pounds (or $275,000 CDN) over their lifetime than a typical university graduate.
"Governments generally need to send the message," said Mr. Kenney, "...that technical occupations have every bit as much value as academic and theoretical ones."
Despite the minister's emphasis on the trades, there is little Canadian data to demonstrate the skills shortage he is talking about.
Meanwhile, a study last year by the Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada seventh out of 16 comparable countries in terms of its university completion rate - which suggests we are not over-emphasizing university. And a recent study by the Council of Ontario of Universities, which may have its own biases, says university grads in Canada can expect to earn much more than those without a degree, both fresh out of school and over their lifetime.
On the other hand, industry organizations like BuildForce Canada have pointed to shortages of skilled construction trades - including carpenters, plumbers, electricians and welders - that pose serious challenges for Canada's construction industry. And there is such a shortage of skilled tradespeople in Western Canada that the B.C. Construction Association went to Ireland in October to hire 600 people.
Rob Norris, Saskatchewan's Minister of Advanced Education who accompanied Mr. Kenney on his trip to Europe, said it is important to foster "parity of esteem" between a vocational education and a university education. "This mission has afforded us to see (that) these (skilled trades) careers are increasingly global in their opportunities and orientation."