Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Apprenticeships

May 11

Trade-offs in Apprenticeships

I haven’t worked on apprenticeship projects much in the last few years, but one of my current gigs has got me thinking about the area again.  And one thing that I apparently missed completely was a new (well, new to me anyway) effort to harmonize apprenticeship program sequencing nationally (details here).

Wait a minute, you say – weren’t apprenticeships always harmonized?  Isn’t that what Red Seal is all about?

Well, sort of.  Red Seal was about harmonizing outcomes.  Basically, Red Seal was an exam that journeypersons could take after completing their (provincially-governed) training which would certify them as being qualified to ply their trade right across the country.  It was optional – if you had no intention of leaving your home province there wasn’t a whole lot of point in taking the exam because completion of the program was itself sufficient to allow one to practice there.  Red Seal was therefore basically a mobility tool for people who had completed apprenticeships.

Now, that was fine when most apprentices started and completed their training in one province.  But during the resource boom, there was an explosion of apprentices who began training in one province and then moved and wanted to complete training in another.  This created problems because although Red Seal had long since harmonized apprenticeship training outcomes, each province got to those outcomes in quite different ways.  Within the same trade, the number of required hours/weeks of training varied from one province to another, and the sequencing was different.  Something that an electrician learned at level 1 in Alberta wasn’t taught until level 3 in Ontario, something that made things complicated if, for instance, an apprentice level 2 electrician got laid off in Windsor and wanted to try his/her luck in Alberta.

As I say, I’ve been out of this file awhile but what seems to have happened is that the provincial directors of apprenticeship seem to have got together and actually co-ordinated things like training sequencing, number of weeks of in-class training, etc, and this is what they refer to as “harmonization”.  According to that federal website, this harmonization initiative is about halfway done – i.e about half the Red Seal trades were harmonized in 2016 and 2017 and the rest will be rolled out in stages over the next couple of years.

So, a triumph for the Canadian apprenticeship system?  Well, not so fast.

Not all trades programs are apprenticeship programs, but the curriculum still has to line up because everyone wants graduates of pre-employment trades programs to be able to become apprentices in that area.  So what that means is that national harmonization of apprenticeship programs in effect means nationalization of the entire trades curriculum.  And what that means is the effectiveness of all those local industry committees that every community college program has suddenly just got a lot less effective, because significant curriculum changes now have to be negotiated among ten provincial directors of apprenticeships.

Traditionally, those committees have been a point of pride in Canada because they have given trades programs the ability to respond quickly to business needs.  Now, their effectiveness has been traded away in the name not of journeyperson mobility but of apprentice mobility, which was a thing in the resource boom but maybe not so much in the bust.  Is that a smart trade-off?  I suspect the answer varies quite a bit by trade, and yet solution this is being applied uniformly across Red Seal Trades.

We are told “industry” asked for this change, but I really wonder who was part of the consultation.  I can certainly believe that big industry with training efforts in many different provinces asked for it.  I can believe that extractive industries asked for it.  I have a harder time believing that smaller and medium enterprises asked for it because it substantially lowers their ability to affect curriculum and to some degree lowers the values of apprentices to them.

Silver linings have clouds, basically.  And centralized curricula have trade-offs.

September 18

Party Platform Analysis: The Conservatives

Back again for some more election platform analysis.  This week: the Conservatives.  But first, a caveat.  Part of the problem with trying to analyze party platforms in a 326-day election is that one’s rhythm gets all thrown off.  In a five-week campaign, all of the announceables are pretty much there in the first 21 days or so, so you more or less know when a party’s done announcing things.  In this election, we’re weeks into the campaign and we can’t be completely sure if the parties are done announcing things, unless, like the Greens, they actually publish the entire manifesto at once (an idea which, judging by their behaviour, the other parties find ridiculously passé).  So what I’m about to analyze is the Conservative platform as of Wednesday the 16th of September.  It’s possible there is a little more to come, but I have a feeling there isn’t – if I’m wrong, I will add some analysis later in the campaign.

Now, I should start by acknowledging that there loads of people in PSE who won’t care a fig what Conservatives promise, because they think the Harper record consists entirely of some kind of “War on Science”.  Long-time readers will know I’m not a fan of that theory: treatment of science and data within government (e.g. the long-from census) has been pretty horrible, but they haven’t done so badly on funding of academic science.  Arguably, by historic standards, their support has been the second-best of any government in Canadian history.  Their problem, however, is that first place goes to their immediate predecessors.

Anyways, the Tory strategy on higher education in this election seems to be to go with small, but tightly-targeted promises.  The first, released a couple of days after the election call, was a change to the Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit (not to be confused with the much sillier Apprenticeship Completion Bonus). This credit targets employers, which is the right focus, since they are the ones who control the supply of apprenticeship “places”.  Currently, it provides employers with a non-refundable tax credit of up to 10% of wages paid to each first- and second-year apprentice employed, up to a maximum of $2,000 per employee.  The tweak announced on August 3rd was to include third- and fourth-year apprentices, and bump the maximum reclaimable amount to $2,500.

This is one of those “meh” announcements.  Does it do a lot of good?  Probably not.  The credit makes sense in first and second year because those employees are noobs who require so much supervision that they don’t always add value.  By their third and fourth year, however, apprentices are getting hired because they add value to an employer, not because there’s a tax break involved (and in any case, in a lot of companies, the people doing the taxes don’t always talk to the HR people who make hiring decisions, so the logic model here of how this increases the supply of spaces isn’t perfect).  But on the other hand, it doesn’t do a lot of harm either.  It’s small ball – I didn’t see a cost estimate for this, but it’s got to be somewhere in the $30-50 million range.

The other, better announcement had to do with improvements to the system of Canada Education Savings Grants (CESG).  You remember those?  Introduced in 1998, they initially paid a 20 cent top-up on every dollar placed in a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), up to a maximum of $400/year (later increased to $500).  About ten years ago the system was tweaked to create something called an A-CESG, which changed the top-up rate on the first $500 contributed to 40 cents on the dollar for families in the bottom income quartile, and 30 cents on the dollar for those in the second quartile.  In early September, the Conservatives announced they would raise those top-ups again, to 60 cents and 40 cents, respectively.

Some of the usual suspects dismissed this announcement out-of-hand because “savings are only for the rich”.  That’s idiotic – it’s right there in the design that this money only goes to families with below-median income.  In that sense, this is a tight, targeted, progressive measure.  But like with the apprenticeship credit, you have to wonder if it’s actually going to change anything.  Why give more money to people who are already saving, rather than – say – adjusting the Canada Learning Bond (which essentially kick-starts RESPs for low-income families by making a $500 initial donation) and making it an automatic benefit,  instead of an application-based one?  It’s not so much that it’s a bad promise; it’s just less effective than it could be.

This, to my mind, sort of sums up the Conservative record.  They can be counted on to do something every year for post-secondary education: just not always the most effective thing.

Next week: probably the NDP, if they’ve fully release their platform.

January 09

The Canada Apprentice Loan: Adventures in Federalism

As I noted a few months back when writing about the 50th anniversary of the Canada Student Loans Program, CSLP was at the heart of one of the federation’s key moments in fiscal federalism.  In 1964, Lester Pearson was running into opposition in Quebec on two of his major policy initiatives: the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Student Loans Program.  A deal on both was eventually struck: any province could “opt-out” of a federal program and receive a compensating “alternative payment”, so long as they ran a program that provided citizens with essentially the same benefits.  The actual clause in the Canada Student Loans Act (stripped of some confusing jargon) reads as follows:

16. (1) Where the government of a province has, at least twelve months before the commencement of a loan year, informed the Minister in writing that a provincial student loan plan will be in operation in that province in that loan year and that [the province does not wish to participate in the CSLP], the Minister shall pay to the province… an alternative amount calculated as provided in this section.

Through to the early 90s, this was the standard way to create new programs in Canada.  If a province wanted out, you simply lopped-off a portion of the program’s budget and handed it to them.  It was only ever Quebec that wanted to do this, but in theory it was available to every province.

Now, along comes the Canada Apprentice Loans, announced in last year’s budget.  They have their own legislation, the Apprentice Loans Act, which became law last year via the budget omnibus legislation. This is a point worth underlining – it means that these loans are administered on a different legal basis than Canada Student Loans.  And what’s immediately apparent when you read the legislation is that not only has the concept of opting-out gone out the window, but it’s turned around, smashed the glass, and done a serious crowbar-job on the frame, too.

Here’s the new wording:

7. The Minister may pay a province the amount that is determined in accordance with the regulations if:

(a) the Minister determines that apprentices registered with the province are unable to enter into agreements for apprentice loans under section 4;

(b) the province has in place a program providing for financial assistance to apprentices; and

(c) the Minister considers that the purpose of the program is substantially similar to the purpose of this Act.

Put simply, provinces do not have the right to opt-out under the new Act.  The minister can choose to setup a deal and give compensation to a province if she/he chooses (which of course was immediately done with Quebec), but it’s a gift of the Minister.  If Alberta set up its own program and asked for treatment similar to Quebec, the Minister would be legally within his rights to tell them to take a long walk off a short pier.

The fact that this passed essentially unnoticed tells you something about the state of our federation.  Even ten years ago, this wording would have made Quebec go ballistic, and probably Alberta as well.  Now: nothing.  And so the government led by the man who drafted the Alberta firewall letter enacts the most centralist piece of new legislation in fifty years.

Kind of fascinating.

January 08

Canada Apprentice Loans: Adventures in Government

I know it’s exceptionally nerdy, but I highly recommend the experience of reading a new law’s regulatory impact statement, for no other reason than to get a taste of the sheer absurdity of government these days.

Take the regulations on the new Apprentice Loan Act. The executive summary on the cost-benefit of the program (scroll down a bit) reads as follows:

The Canada Apprentice Loan (CAL) will cost the Government of Canada (GoC) $74 million over 10 years, from 2014–15 to 2023–24. Benefits include income gains for additional apprentice completers as a result of the CAL. If a 10 percentage point increase in the completion rate due to the CAL were assumed, this would yield income gains of $185 million over 10 years, and net benefits to Canadians of $111 million.

The key word in that sentence is “assumed”. Or, in other words: they plucked some numbers out of the air to make the program look plausible.

To be fair to the folks who wrote this, there’s no good data available as to the likely impact apprentice loans might have on completion. There would be if the government had, at any time in the past six years, evaluated the effect of the Apprenticeship Incentive or Completion Grants, or the Tradesperson’s Tool Deduction. But the government hasn’t done any of this, so “assuming” numbers may have been the only way to go.

Another highly amusing aspect of the regulatory statement is the rationale for the program’s borrowing limit of $4,000/period of technical training. Supposedly, it’s equivalent to an apprentice’s lost earnings during a technical training period, but no source for the figure is given.

In all the largest occupational categories, the usual technical training period is 8 weeks. At a fairly generous estimate of $17/hr and 40 hours per week, the implied loss in gross earnings is about $5,440, with a net earnings loss of between $4,000 and $4,500, depending on what province you’re in. So the estimate is probably right, right?

Wrong. That math only works if you assume the apprentice does not receive EI during technical training. Once EI is factored in, apprentices would need to be making $25/hour in order to be losing $4,000 in wages per technical training period. Let me assure you: apprentices are not making $25/hour.

How could anyone make such errors, you ask? Simple: they aren’t errors. Nobody actually believes these numbers. They’re just made-up after the fact to provide cover for a decision that was made with an eye toward placating constituencies (read: construction companies) rather than addressing a real problem. It’s what happens when policy is made on the fly, and the public service isn’t asked for input until after budget night.

Some of you may read this and think: “Aha! Tory perfidy!” But resist that impulse if you can. Harper’s government is hardly the only one that does this kind of thing: the Ontario Liberals’ 30% Tuition Grant is a far more egregious example of the same process, and a more expensive one too. The OTG costs hundreds of millions of dollars per year, where the Apprentice Loans are projected to cost just $7 million/year (yes, yes, the budget said it would cost $25 million/year – now they’ve decided it will be less).

The real problem is that when Canadian governments of any stripe want to claim they’re “doing something” about education, they simply start writing cheques to learners (or their parents) and Hey, Presto! Problem solved! But the only “problem” this solves is the perception that governments aren’t doing anything about education.  Improving education – actually making a difference in terms of completion rates, or graduate quality, or what have you – that takes work. That takes thought. That requires politicians to concentrate for more than a couple of hours.

Most of all, it requires investments in institutions. And increasingly, governments seem reluctant to make those investments.

August 06

Correlation and Causation in Technical Education

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.”

Or this:

“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 conditionsThe 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.

February 15

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.

February 14

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.