Higher Education Strategy Associates

Apprenticeships: So Long, So Little Technical Training

Why do Canadian apprenticeships take so long?

Canadian apprenticeships vary in length a bit by trade and province, with standard lengths going from two to five years. But by convention most of the main trades are designed to last four years (in practice, of course, they often last longer as apprentices don’t always manage to make the regular alternation of work and technical training).

Now, compare this to the normal times-to-completion in other countries. In Germany, Austria and New Zealand it’s three years, Finland two to three years, U.K. and Australia, one to four years. I could go on, but you get the point. Internationally, only Denmark, Ireland and Switzerland have program lengths in or around the four-year mark the way our apprenticeships do.

Canadian apprentices are also outliers internationally for the relatively small proportion of time they spend in formal technical training. On average, Canadian apprentices spend about 15% of their time in technical training, compared to 20% in the Netherlands and Austria, 25% in Belgium, Ireland and Finland, and 33% in Germany.

To sum up, Canadian apprenticeships are notable for the length of time to completion and the relatively low proportion of time devoted to technical training. Or, to put it another way, we are notable for the really large number of hours our apprentices spend in paid work.

I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation for why this might be, but one can hazard a guess just by asking “who benefits”? The answer, of course, is employers – particularly in the final years of an apprenticeship, they benefit by getting quite well-trained labour at a regulated apprenticeship wage rate.

Over the past few years, provincial governments have been doing their best to keep up with the demand for skilled trades by expanding apprenticeship training. One brake on this expansion has been a shortage of experienced journeypersons with whom apprenticeships can be undertaken. But this bottleneck is in part caused by the sheer number of hours each journeyperson needs to devote to training each apprentice. If our apprenticeships were reduced to the same length of time as German ones, the supply of journeyperson hours available for training new apprentices would instantly jump by 25%.

Might a shortening of time this entail a reduction in quality of our skilled tradespeople? Maybe, but it’s striking that German apprenticeship programs can produce world-class tradespeople with only about 60% of the on-the-job training that ours do. Why is that, exactly? What is it that they can accomplish in three years that takes our apprentices four?

It’s a question that efficiency-minded governments wanting to expand the skilled trades need to ask.

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