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.