If you’ve been following our Minister of Employment and Social Development, Jason Kenney, lately, you’ll know that he’s taken a keen interest in German apprenticeships. So much so that his office recently organized a study trip to Germany, to which various provincial education ministers and Ottawa association types were also invited.
There are, basically, eight major differences between our system of apprenticeships and theirs. To wit:
1) Our apprenticeship system is post-secondary, and caters to people in their 20s. Theirs is essentially part of the secondary system, and caters to 17-19 year-olds.
2) As a corollary, German apprentices spend a higher proportion of in-class training on basic employability skills (reading and math) than on technical skills. They also spend a greater proportion of their time in class, as opposed to in the workplace.
3) German apprenticeships take 2-3 years, ours take 4-5 (I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer as to why this is the case).
4) German apprentices mostly do day-release training, not block release, resulting in a better fit between training and work.
5) The range of apprenticeable occupations is much wider in Germany. Ours are effectively restricted to skilled trades; theirs include banking, retail sales, international trade, etc.
6) Germany has well-articulated paths from apprenticeships to degrees. In Canada, this only exists at a couple of polytechs (eg. NAIT/SAIT), though the situation is improving.
7) Germany distinguishes between “journeypersons” and “journeypersons who are qualified to supervise apprentices”. This professionalizes the learning that takes place on the worksite, which is to the good.
8) The obvious one: you don’t have to beat German employers over the head with a shoe to get them to invest in training on their own.
Take what you want from numbers 2-8; in the Canadian context, number 1 is the one that matters for federal policy-making: if you want to ape the German model, the feds need to get out of the system.
There are lots of interesting things about this model, of course. But as long-time readers will know, I’m pretty skeptical about the rhetorical uses to which the legendary German apprenticeships are put in the Canadian context. They are almost always deployed as an argument for increasing investment in skilled trades (which is wrong – less than 30% of German apprenticeships are in the skilled trades), and/or as a solution to youth unemployment, which seems to me to be a serious case of confusing correlation with causation. Over the past few months, Kenney has been guilty of both of these sins.
So it was interesting the week before last when Minister Kenney decided to take me to task for some of my skeptical tweeting on the subject. After a brief and interesting exchange, he offered this insight into his thinking:
This is kind of a big deal. If all of Kenney’s drum-banging about apprenticeships is actually about experiential learning, then that changes the debate enormously. There are loads of people who could get on board with that. When I pointed this out to him, he replied:
Here’s hoping. It would mark an important improvement in our policy debate if he does.