Higher Education Strategy Associates

Apprenticeship Booms and Busts

Does anyone remember 2008, when the most pressing policy problem we had in post-secondary education was how to increase apprenticeship enrolments? When skilled-trade shortages were simply going to kill the economy? Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Now, there is an argument – one which was made very well a few months ago by the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity – that the whole shortage thing was overblown; certainly, it was the only labour shortage in history that caused no discernable increase in wages whatsoever. But suppose there actually was a shortage: what might have caused it?

The standard answer was that it was a generational thing: lots of journeypersons about to retire, while few were entering apprenticeship programs. The second half of this was frankly bunk; registered apprenticeship numbers were going through the roof in the second half of the 2000s. But say there was something to the first half and there was something lopsided about the age structure of the skilled trades (that is, more lopsided than in the economy as a whole). Why might this have occurred in the skilled trades?

There’s a simple but unpopular answer here: the apprenticeship system itself was to blame.

People think of post-secondary education as being counter-cyclical – when times get bad, people go to get more education. And that’s largely true, especially in the community college sector. It’s become increasingly common to describe apprenticeships as a form of post-secondary education. But doing so obscures a rather central fact about apprenticeships: governments do not control the intake of apprentices the way they control the intake of students. Businesses do. When times are good, they’ll take on apprentices. When times are bad, they won’t. Period.

Now, think back to the period 1982-1997. Though bits of the country did well for a brief period in the late 80s, for the country as a whole that fifteen-year period was pretty grim in terms of unemployment. Construction activity was minimal. Unemployment rates of technical/vocational programs were in the high teens. Obviously, hiring of apprentices was minimal for much this era. As a result, we shouldn’t really be surprised if there’s a demographic gap in skilled trades.

If we want to avoid these problems in the future, we have to figure out a way to smooth our intake of trainees in the skilled trades. We need to find ways to keep apprentices in the system in bad times and take fewer of them in the good times.

Until we figure out how to do that, our apprenticeship model will be as much a part of the problem as it is part of the solution.

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