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Apprenticeships a profitable substitute to college: studies

Job seekers at a Manpower Canada office in Toronto in this photo from April.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Want to boost your earnings power without the trouble and expense of traditional post-secondary education? Do an apprenticeship.

Turns out, at least for men, getting an apprenticeship certification can be more lucrative than a college education, a pair of two new Canadian studies show.

Apprenticeships have been the norm in countries like Switzerland and Germany for centuries – but they're not nearly as common in North America. And though research has consistently found post-secondary education boosts economic prosperity, the value of apprenticeships often gets overlooked.

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Analysis of the 2006 census found certified male apprentices had earnings similar to men with a community college education, according to two papers to be published in the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network monthly publication.

The first study, by University of Toronto professors Morley Gunderson and Harry Krashinsky, found male apprentices earn 24 per cent more than those with just a high-school diploma, 15-per-cent more than those with other trades and 2-per-cent more than college graduates.

It's a different picture for women, though. Doing an apprenticeship yields lower returns then just completing high school and "substantially" lower returns than completing community college -- likely reflecting that female apprenticeships tend to be in low-wage jobs in industries like food and personal service such as hairdressing, the analysis said.

Still, females who do an apprenticeship in traditionally male-dominated trades (like mechanics) tend to have an earnings premium that's greater even than male apprentices, the second study by Industry Canada's Daniel Boothby and Trent University's Torben Drewes found.

Their general conclusion – once all the costs and benefits are taken into account, including training costs and future earnings, an apprenticeship education is as financially attractive an option as a college degree.

Apprenticeships account for just 13 per cent of post-secondary enrolment compared to 28 per cent in community colleges and 59 per cent in universities, the first paper notes.

The two studies are being published at an interesting time -- despite all the discussion of the value of a college education, young graduates are still facing a tough time finding jobs in their field, while at the same time, concern is growing over the lingering effects of student debt.

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"By bridging the gap between school and work, an apprenticeship program can reduce the likelihood of an initial experience in the labour market of a prolonged bout of unemployment," the authors of the first paper said.

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