Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
“In many Northern and Central European countries, including Switzerland and Germany, there are robust apprenticeship programs. In both of those countries, youth unemployment is very low compared to Canada and the U.S.”
“As the economy changes, however, it is increasingly clear that this is the polytechnic moment… in the recent recession, youth unemployment was lower in countries with strong vocational training programs.”
There are three propositions here. One is that Canada’s apprenticeship/vocational training/polytechnics systems are weaker than those in what for the sake of brevity I will call Germanic Central Europe (GCE). Another is that unemployment is lower in GCE than it is in Canada. Finally, it is heavily implied that there is some sort of causal relationship at work here; that GCEs have lower unemployment rates because of their educational systems.
Let’s take those three in turn. It is certainly true that GCE countries have more apprentices than we do. But the term “apprenticeship” means something different over there. As I pointed out back here, the reason places like Germany have more apprentices is because their set of apprenticeable trades is much wider than ours. If you limit the analysis to just skilled trades, Canada’s apprentice numbers actually look about the same as Germany’s (our completion rates are much lower – but that’s a less sexy story).
As for “vocational education” and “polytechnics” (terms that are not synonyms): Canada already has the largest non-university tertiary system on the planet. True, we don’t have a lot of “polytechnics”, but the recent trend in GCE has been to turn these institutions into degree-granting “Universities of Applied Science” with professional rather than vocational orientations. So yes, GCEs’ technical education systems are different from ours. But their sources of strength aren’t necessarily in “vocational” training the way we define it.
With respect to unemployment rates, it’s quite true that unemployment among 15-24 year-olds in places like Germany (8.1%), Austria (8.7%) and Switzerland (2.8%) are lower than in Canada (13.6%). But youth unemployment can’t be examined in isolation: it is a function of overall economic conditions. The ratios of youth unemployment to overall unemployment tell a different story: Canada’s rate is 1.92, Austria’s 1.85, Germany’s 1.53 and Switzerland’s a freakish 1.04. Austria’s purported advantage, at least, disappears completely on this more sensible comparison
Finally, the issue of causation. Dial things back about twelve years; Germany had the same “dual” system of apprenticeships, but unemployment rates were twice what they are now. If apprenticeships “cause” low unemployment now, did they also “cause” high unemployment twelve years ago? Obviously not. Claiming causation in one period but not another looks like cherry-picking.
In short, it’s good to invest in top-notch technical education, but be wary of over-ambitious claims made about its impacts.