By Gavin Moodie

The recent report of the Premier of Ontario’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel contains several proposals for ‘Building the workforce of tomorrow’ as the panel calls its report. One proposal is for ‘modernized’ apprenticeships. This is all of the panel’s description of its proposal:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 11.17.33 AMRecommendation 3-3: The Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development should be given the mandate to consult with stakeholders to develop a modernized apprenticeship system reflective of the current business climate and focused on the integration of young people into the trades. This modernization could include moving all education components of an apprenticeship to the beginning of the program and establishing a central application process for anyone wanting to enter.

The panel refers to apprenticeships incidentally a few other times in its report but does not discuss them and so gives no background to its proposal. It is therefore necessary to develop the proposal from first principles.

Apprenticeships were formalized during the Middle Ages. Early apprenticeships were therefore a mechanism for reproducing crafts. While many crafts died with the industrial revolution, the institution of apprenticeships survived and indeed prospered with the transition from craft to factory manufacturing and the emergence of new apprenticeships in, for example, boiler making, fitting and machining, and many types of mechanic.

Apprenticeships have not fared so well in the transition from manufacturing to multinational production and services in liberal market economies such as Canada, the UK and the USA. However, apprenticeships are much stronger in coordinated market economies such as in Germany and its northern continental neighbours. In these countries much of the economy – including the provision of college and on the job training of apprentices – is coordinated at national, provincial and local levels by the social partners of governments, unions and employer associations.

Apprenticeships and the relations between education and work generally tend to be much closer in both coordinated and liberal market economies in regulated occupations, such as for electricians, engineers, mechanics, nurses, physicians, plumbers, teachers and welders. Thus, in 2015 Germany regulated 328 training occupations for which workers are prepared by the ‘dual system’ of college and on the job training of apprentices.

Occasionally governments in liberal market economies seek to revive apprenticeships, as the UK has done recently with its ‘higher apprenticeships’. However, take up tends to be disappointing when the underlying causes of the decline of apprenticeships are ignored.

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One of the disadvantages of traditional apprenticeships is that they are procyclical with the economy, in contrast with most post compulsory education which is counter cyclical. When the economy slows employers stop recruiting apprentices and some lay off those they have. This increases unemployment. It also increases the shortage of skilled workers when the economy revives.

In contrast, when the economy grows strongly and there is strong demand for employment, enrolments in postsecondary programs fall as many people who would otherwise study enter full time work. This reduces employment shortages during periods of high demand. But when the economy slows people who would otherwise work enter full time study, either to undertake a first qualification or to undertake a different or higher level qualification. This reduces the unemployment rolls and prepares graduates for work when the economy revives.

The panel’s proposal for ‘modernized’ apprentices has the advantage of being counter cyclical with the economy, since apprentices could start their apprenticeship independently of the state of the labour market. Apprentices could start their campus study when employment demand was weak and they could start their on the job training when demand for employment was strong. These apprenticeships could incorporate high levels of structured learning on the job similar to the way nursing and education students undertake clinical placements and practicums as part of their undergraduate program.

A full proposal for what the panel calls ‘modernized’ apprentices was developed as ‘trade diplomas’ in 2007 by Bruce Mackenzie as Director of Holmesglen Institute of Technical and Further Education in Melbourne, Australia. It was never taken up in Australia and I’m not aware of such a scheme being tried at scale in any other liberal market economy.

The Ontario expert panel’s proposal for ‘modernized apprenticeships’ therefore offers an opportunity to develop a genuinely new approach to an issue that has long concerned liberal market economies. This or another elaboration of the proposal for ‘modernized’ apprenticeships would warrant exploration by one of the intermediaries proposed by the expert panel.