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Investing in apprenticeships an investment, not an expense

An employee prepares a magnet, manufactured for use in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners, during quality control tests at the Siemens AG Magnet Technology factory in Oxford, U.K. At its plant in North Carolina, Siemens is participating in a European-style apprenticeship program that recruits local high-school students and works with them over four years.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Facing a youth unemployment rate of 14 per cent – a measure that applies to those aged between 15 and 24 – Canada's young people are struggling, their problems made worse by an approach to education that is failing them and the country.

Over the past two decades, undergraduate enrollment – encouraged by social attitudes that link the university with security, happiness and prestige – has almost doubled (more than 1 million students registered as undergraduates in 2011).

Those who would look upon this as a good thing ignore a fundamental truth: When there is more of something, it becomes less valuable. The Canadian job market is so saturated with graduates holding a B.A. or B.Sc that employers are no longer as impressed by a degree as they once might have been. Rising numbers of students pursuing graduate degrees – an M.A. is often the solution for those who fail to find work, or are dissatisfied with what is available – threaten to turn that route into a dead end, too.

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One way to address these problems is to make apprenticeships a central focus. As it stands, while the federal government is intent on importing 3,000 skilled foreign tradespeople next year, students in high school and community college are offered the opportunity to learn on the job for a period of a few weeks or months. This comes nowhere close to what is practised in other countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In these states, the youth unemployment rate has been kept low – well under 10 per cent in each case – in large part because of apprenticeship systems that help young people obtain the skills needed for steady, well-paying jobs.

The German model is the most advanced of these. In Germany, 60 per cent of high-school graduates do not enter university but instead train for a period of three years as mechanics, carpenters, electricians, welders, plumbers, engineers, miners and health professionals (there are hundreds of other options available). These are areas that, for the most part, do not require a university education. They are also jobs that are in high demand in Canada.

We don't have to look as far as Europe, however. This emphasis on apprenticeships has now taken root in the United States, albeit on a smaller scale, in the area around Charlotte, N.C. Introduced in 1995, by an Austrian manufacturer that failed to find local labour, the Apprenticeship 2000 program includes eight companies – Austrian, German, Swiss and American – that aim to train future workers by providing them with a dual focus.

Before entering their final year of high school, interested students apply to work as apprentices. Those chosen must have strong grades and an excellent attendance record. Over four years, they must complete 6,000 hours of hands-on learning where trainees work toward becoming welders, tool and die makers, electricians, machinists or trade technicians (the options match with the needs of the firm training the student). Instruction is provided by experienced workers in a specific facility set aside by the companies. Apprentices are paid for their work and the rate varies: Beginners make $9.00 per hour while those in their fourth year earn $13.50.

The hands-on training is combined with classroom study at Central Piedmont, a local community college and a program partner. Students are expected to spend 2,000 hours at the school concentrating on the theoretical aspects of their chosen profession according to a curriculum designed by the companies and the college. Tuition is paid for by the firms which, when added to the payments mentioned above, drives up costs significantly. For example, Siemens, one of the German firms involved, spends around $160,000 on each apprentice over the four year period.

After completing both requirements, students are given a diploma in manufacturing and a guaranteed job with the company that taught them. The minimum annual income for graduates is $34,000 and this increases as more experience is gained.

Since the program began, over 100 apprentices have been trained and 50 are currently enrolled, a small number that shows the limits on what a few companies working in a single state can accomplish, (to be sure, the negative stigma associated with "blue collar" jobs also plays a role here, along with the fact that the sink or swim approach to capitalism remains firmly entrenched in the U.S.). For this reason, some within the Canadian education system are beginning to look at it as a possible model and they ought to continue. Apprenticeship 2000 allows for a win-win. Not only has it helped students who cannot afford university or find work after finishing a degree. For the businesses involved, it provides a system whereby skilled workers replace retirees, all the while instilling a sense of trust and loyalty between the employee and the employer. This is why the companies consider the money spent on apprentices an investment rather than an expense. And the program addresses what is fast becoming a serious problem throughout the West – a lack of tradespeople.

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Introducing something similar in Canada would take time – the comfort of routine ensures that failed policies persist – and will require tailoring. Having governments or businesses pay tuition expenses, for example, is unlikely when fiscal restraint has become the new normal (this despite the fact that many companies find themselves sitting on piles of cash). Still, complex problems require solutions beyond temporary fixes and more money. Now is the time to change course in a way that will meet the needs of our country and the young people who stand to inherit it.

Peter Fragiskatos teaches at Western University in London, Ontario. Follow him on Twitter: @pfragiskatos

Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.

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