Higher Education Strategy Associates

Kevin Lynch is Horribly Wrong

It’s disappointing that Kevin Lynch, former head of the public service in Ottawa, is the latest victim of that peculiarly Canadian disease, where one’s casual knowledge of the German apprenticeship system leads one to lose all critical faculties – as demonstrated in this awful article from the weekend Globe.

The article starts by noting that, “in proficiency in numeracy and literacy among 16-24 year-olds…, Canada is lagging the results for the Nordic countries, Australia and Germany”.  Wrong.  Well, at least partly wrong.  In literacy, the statement is true with respect to Australia, Finland, and Sweden, but differences between Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Canada are statistically insignificant.  And in numeracy, Australia and Norway are identical to Canada (pgs. 72-82 of the PIAAC report).  The article then goes on to note that, “In preparing young Canadians… experiential education appears to be quite valuable, especially for the skilled trades, and here there may be much to learn from others” – “others” apparently meaning Germany.

Leaving aside the issue that German PIAAC results aren’t really better than Canadian ones, it’s hard to understand why Lynch thinks that – even in theory – higher participation in the skilled trades would have strong positive effects on PIAAC scores.  Literacy and numeracy “skills” are quite different than “skilled” trades.

Lynch then sails into the usual puppy love about German vocationalism.  It’s “impressive”, according to him, that 50% of German high school students end up in vocational programs.  As if this was a choice.  As if streaming didn’t enter into it.  As if this streaming didn’t end up disproportionately steering poorer Germans and immigrants into vocational schools.  As if Germans themselves hadn’t noted how this dynamic contributes to Germany having among the most unequal literacy and numeracy outcomes in the OECD.

From there, it’s the usual conflation of apprenticeships with skilled trades, a peculiarly Canadian mistake.  If you look at the top ten occupations for apprenticeships in Germany, only three are in (what we’d call) the skilled trades: mechanic, mechanical engineer, and cook (the other seven – retail sales, office administration, business administration, medical administration, hairdressing, wholesale and export sales, and “sales” – would mostly be taught at colleges in Canada).  And then, to wrap up the article, is the specious argument that this vocational education system is the cause of Germany’s current low level of unemployment (seven years ago Germany had an unemployment rate of 12% – were apprenticeships the cause of that, too?).

Lynch’s argument, then, is: German youth have better PIAAC skills than Canadian youths (partly wrong), PIAAC skills are improved by skilled trades (huh?), German apprenticeships = skilled trades (wrong), and apprenticeships = lower unemployment (wrong).

Experiential education is, of course, a good thing.  But how about we discuss it without all this irrelevant nonsense about Germany?  It doesn’t improve the quality of our debate, at all.

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4 Responses to Kevin Lynch is Horribly Wrong

  1. Carrie Hunter says:

    Thank you, Alex, for once again pointing out the “fast and loose” people often use in policy discourse as a means to an end. I’ve often argued that people (in policy and in every facet of life) decide (based on….???) what they want to believe true (i.e. in this case, that apprenticeships are valuable) and then recite anything that might come close to convincing someone that this is the case. The accuracy, relevance and completeness of the information is not considered. You do an excellent job of exposing these non-arguements.
    We are an increasingly educated and rational world. I predict that there will come a “new enlightenment:” A Bayesian evolution where people hold their beliefs based on a logical analysis of the evidence, and adjust their beliefs when new evidence comes to light. Until then, we need people like you to point out (and even poke fun at) those who fail to apply evidence in making or promoting their beliefs.

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  3. Alex,
    I agree totally that Lynch’s argument around Germany’s success is flawed and/or extremely stretched to the point of nonsense. Your point is well made.

    I don’t understand, however, your view on Germany if you have any. You seem to imply that Germany’s not doing anything that should be emulated.

    My own view is that Germany is unique in the western world of having their Boards be comprised 50/50 of shareholder representatives and employees. Although there’s plenty of hoopla made to infer that our Boards, made up of fellow CEOs or the CEOs friends, are perfectly adequate my cynical side says otherwise. Skills training or apprenticeships are probably not the most frequent discussions at Board meetings however I suspect when it is the Board that is half employees would treat it much differently than the Board that is just “independent” shareholders.

    Grateful for your thoughts,

    • Alex Usher says:

      Hi Johnathan. Thanks for reading.

      I’m arguing a) that Germany isn’t quite doing what everyone thinks its doing (most of its apprenticeships aren’t in skilled trades). b) that even to the extent that it is doing what people think it’s doing, there are drawbacks (streaming). I would also probably extend it to c) to the extent that what Germany is doing is admirable, its probably not replicable in Canada because of its different corporate culture so why are we talking about it?

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