Provincial governments across the country have taken a renewed interest in promoting apprenticeships and the skilled trades. This newfound attention crosses partisan and regional lines and involves various policy experiments and institutional reforms. Successful efforts in this area would not only help to meet the economy’s need for specialized labour, they would also boost opportunity and earning prospects for the persistent share of Canadians without post-secondary qualifications.

The impetus for a greater focus on apprenticeships and the skilled trades is primarily macroeconomic concerns about impending labour market shortages, driven by a combination of the aging of the population, low take-up of apprenticeship training and poor completion rates for those who do pursue apprenticeship. These concerns are understandable. Labour shortages in the skilled trades are becoming a barrier to investment and economic activity across the country. Just consider the following:

  • Ontario Power Generation, in the midst of refurbishing the two plants that provide 50 percent of Ontario’s power needs, notes that “the number one risk affecting Ontario Power Generation projects right now is lack of skilled trades.”
  • The head of the transportation agency Metrolinx has observed that its infrastructure projects on the books for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are not adequate for the region’s needs, yet they “are about as much as the market can sustain” due in part to skilled labour shortages.
  • And a recent study by the Business Development Bank of Canada found “a direct link between a shortage of workers and slower growth in company sales” and that “firms that are more affected by labour shortages are 65% more likely to be low-growth companies.”

These are real concerns that require policy responses to encourage more people to pursue and complete apprenticeship training. But the case for this policy agenda isn’t just about the macroeconomy. As important, it’s about creating better opportunity for Canadians who do not have post-secondary qualifications.

As strong as Canada’s post-secondary education system is, a considerable share of the working-age population doesn’t have post-secondary qualifications: university or college degrees or skilled trades certifications. That share will shrink over the next coming decades due to changing demographics, improvements to post-secondary access and evolving social norms, but for now, there’s still a persistent proportion of Canadians who finish high school and don’t pursue university or college.

In Ontario, according to the 2016 census, 31.9 percent of people aged 25 to 64 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, another 24.7 percent had a college degree and 6.2 percent had an apprenticeship certificate. These are among the highest overall rates of post-secondary qualifications in Canada, and yet roughly 40 percent of Ontarians in this age group still have only a high school diploma or less. The numbers are different for various age categories — so, for instance, closer to 70 percent of those aged 25 to 34 have some form of post-secondary qualifications. But even in this younger group, 3 in 10 still have a high school diploma or less.

Another striking fact is that Ontario’s skilled trades certification rate among those aged 25 to 64 is only about two-thirds the national average (6.2 percent versus 10.8 percent). This gap matters because the data tell us that those with a trades certificate earn considerably more than those with only a high school diploma and even those with a college degree. In 2015, for instance, the median annual earnings for Canadian men with a trade certificate were 7 percent higher than for men with a college degree, 31 percent higher than for men with a high school diploma and only 11 percent lower than for men with a bachelor’s degree.

Think about that for a minute. If public policy could help to nudge young Canadians who are in high school and don’t plan to pursue university or college into an apprenticeship, we could significantly increase their human capital and raise their earnings potential by as much as one-third. This is particularly true for underrepresented groups such as Indigenous people, immigrants and women.

Seen through this lens, a focus on apprenticeships and skilled trades isn’t just a utilitarian emphasis on labour market equilibrium — it’s about helping our most vulnerable workers participate more fully in the modern economy. What can policy-makers do to support young people who aren’t bound for university or college to pursue an apprenticeship?

We recently published a policy brief with the Ontario 360 project at the University of Toronto that sets out a series of policy recommendations for the Ontario government (although they have wider application also). It includes two practical proposals that could have an oversized effect on young people who don’t head for post-secondary education.

The first is that provincial governments should massively expand current programs that introduce the skilled trades in high school. These programs enable Grade 11 and 12 students to complete vocational classes that contribute to their high school completion and let them start earning credits toward an apprenticeship. Provinces such as Alberta (Registered Apprenticeship Program) and Ontario (Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program) currently have programs that function along these lines. The problem is that they’re not ambitious enough. Funding levels are low and unreliable. Programming has only minimal visibility. Program administration is understaffed. And too few students are able to participate.

Provincial governments should reconceptualize these programs, expand their funding and extend their reach. The goal should be to shift them from ancillary programs that function on the side of high school education to core parts of the curriculum that allow students with technical aptitudes to choose a pathway where trades training is central to their education from the start. The result would be to introduce more high school students to the skilled trades earlier in their studies and to provide a real pathway for those who won’t pursue university or college programs to transition immediately into an apprenticeship.

Our second proposal for reform is to simplify the application process for high school students who wish to pursue apprenticeship training. Ontario students who apply to university or college benefit from streamlined, one-stop systems that manage the application process on their behalf. High school students who pursue an apprenticeship, by contrast, are forced to navigate the administrative complexities of the apprenticeship system with virtually no help or support. The requirements include (but are hardly limited to) making arrangements with an employer, obtaining admission into a training program and maintaining registration with both throughout the process. We have estimated that an apprentice must fill out administrative forms at least five times in the course of an apprenticeship.

This unequal treatment, relative to university or college students, shows how vocational education is neglected by policy-makers. It’s striking that we have created a streamlined system for the two-thirds who pursue post-secondary studies and not bothered thinking about a comparable model for those who don’t. Its impact is to create a real barrier for people who choose to pursue and complete apprenticeship training. This is particularly the case for those without family support or who face other obstacles.

A move to integrate support for apprenticeship applications with existing systems for college applications such as the Ontario College Application Service would therefore be a welcome step toward centralizing and standardizing applications. It would have the meaningful side benefit of signalling that the trades are a worthy part of a province’s tertiary education system.

There are other steps that provincial and territorial governments ought to take to strengthen the apprenticeship system and better support the skilled trades. But these two would be a good start. Fundamentally, they would represent a shift in how policy-makers think about apprenticeships and the skilled trades, what problems they’re trying to solve, and who the target cohort is. The goal of a renewed emphasis on the skilled trades shouldn’t be about persuading university or college-bound students to revisit their professional goals. It should be about encouraging those who aren’t planning to pursue post-secondary education to see apprenticeship training as a credible option.

If the Ontario government could help more people with only high school education pursue apprenticeship training and, in so doing, close its trades certification gap with the rest of the country, it would transform people’s lives. And it would address its labour shortages in the skilled trades as well.

Photo: Shutterstock, by garmoncheg.

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Brian Dijkema
Brian Dijkema is vice-president of external affairs at the think tank Cardus. Before joining Cardus, he worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada. He has worked on human rights in Latin America and China. 
Sean Speer
Sean Speer is the co-director of the Ontario 360 project and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

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