By Janet Lane
Published in the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Vancouver Province

July 24, 2020

Apprenticeship is a time-honoured tradition. In many countries, it is the preferred way for people to enter the workforce, gain both education and work experience and begin exciting, well-respected careers. Expanding the number of occupations learned through apprenticeships to include occupations in health care, finance and technology sectors as they do in much of Europe, could be a way to train or retrain unemployed and underemployed Albertans for new jobs the government is working hard to attract to the province.

Premier Jason Kenney wants to get Albertans back to work. He’s not alone. The oil and gas workers, women, youth and many service-sector employees who lost jobs through both the downturn in oil prices and COVID-19 want to get back to work too. The trouble is that some jobs may not come back for a long time, or maybe not at all.

As part of its plan to create new jobs by attracting business to the province, the Alberta government has accelerated its reduction to the corporate tax rate. Low taxes can be attractive to business, but by themselves are rarely sufficient to draw business to a location. However, combined with the quality of life that living in Alberta has to offer, this strategy may succeed as long as employers in diverse industry and business sectors are assured that there are enough potential employees with the skills and competencies to do the jobs they will create.

There might not be. Some up-skilling or re-skilling of the available workforce may be required.

Apprenticeship is a proven solution to this problem that might be updated, expanded and put to work now.

In more recent times, apprenticeship programs in schools and training institutes cover some of the knowledge and skills — but the mastery of crafts and professions has always been through learning at the side of those who have already achieved mastery. Think of skilled trades apprentices learning from journeypersons, medical internships, and articling at established law firms for law school graduates.

Nowadays, most employers look for job-ready candidates. As a consequence, schools and post-secondary institutions struggle to engage employers in the creation of work-integrated learning opportunities for their students. The original work-integrated learning was apprenticeship.

Co-op programs, internships, summer jobs and other work-integrated learning opportunities and apprenticeships all take concerted involvement by employers. Apprenticeships just make the involvement more formalized — and, in the end, more effective and accountable.

Premier Kenney has also convened the Skills for Jobs Taskforce, which will report to government on ways to expand and strengthen apprenticeship education. In Alberta, apprenticeships are associated with 60 skilled construction and mechanical trades and other occupations such as hairdresser and chef. Apprenticeships are seen as an alternative to more academic learning. But that’s not the way it is in much of the rest of the world.

The Germanic apprenticeship model used in much of Europe and perfected in Switzerland is a dual-training system — part formal education, part workplace training — for more than 250 occupations.

All of this leads to some interesting questions:

Swiss companies are bringing established successful apprenticeship programs to their branch offices and other firms in the U.S.; could they be used as models for apprenticeships here in Alberta?

NAIT and SAIT and the 11 comprehensive community colleges in Alberta are all experienced in the current apprenticeship system. Would they be interested in expanding apprenticeship to new occupations?

Are there some established businesses that are attracted by all Alberta has to offer? Would they be willing to assist people who have good skills and competencies, but not quite the ones required by the new jobs, to develop them through a dual-training model?

At the very least, these questions are worth exploring. Apprenticeships for new jobs could be accomplished through co-op terms for current post-secondary students. But with so many well-educated and experienced workers looking for good quality work right now, apprenticeship could be the way to fill their gaps in required competencies and enable them to become the job-ready candidates that new employers are looking for.

Janet Lane is the director of the Human Capital Centre at the Canada West Foundation.