Setting the stage
As Canada enters the 21st century, we find ourselves facing an interesting dilemma and a labour market that has been markedly different from the past. With the looming retirement of the largest demographic cohort in the history of the planet and a birthrate that hasn’t kept pace, combined with economic growth and increased technological advances, our post-secondary education system is faced with new challenges, but also new opportunities.
There are more people leaving the Canadian workforce every year than entering it, so the current generation has unprecedented choices in terms of choosing a career path, and the same forces are creating the need to have our youth enter the workforce with the skills they need to be successful, but also with pathways that can lead to several different career destinations. Competition for young workers is encouraging them to step right into the workforce to high pay in some sectors and regions, particularly in Northern BC and Alberta, and shrinking graduating classes have put immense pressure on sustaining an education system that had grown to support a much larger population swell. With these pressures government is looking intently at how to create efficiencies and direct funding into pathways that lead to the highest likelihood of employment, and that investments in training are directed where there is the most need, but without increasing overall training budgets and maintaining fiscal restraint.
The landscape of the post-secondary system has always had two streams: academic pathways leading to “professions”; and vocational pathways leading to careers in the trades and technologies. High school students are facing increased pressure to “choose a path” and are often influenced by a bias that working with your hands is somehow less of an accomplishment than a career founded on a university degree. In a world where most trades were mechanical and revolved around much hard and heavy labour, (as existed in the early part of the last century) there may have been some root in that bias, but in today’s world, the oft revered skills of academia – critical thinking, analysis and diagnosis, interpretation of complex scientific and mathematical information, and a strong ability to communicate effectively and concisely are exactly the skills needed to be successful in today’s trades.
In British Columbia, like many other jurisdictions nationally and internationally that face similar pressures, we see a movement of tradespeople moving into the next stages of their career as a project manager, executive, or educator and into a job that draws on a previous life as a tradesperson “on the tools”, but requires a degree as a pre-requisite, limiting the options for many talented and competent people. Many of the skills required have been developed in the workplace running a business or a jobsite, instructing apprentices and other employees, and managing the finances of a successful company, but had not been attained formally through a university degree.
This has led to a movement to assess and articulate prior learning in the trades towards university degrees to improve pathways for those individuals, but those options are not universally available, consistently clear, or widespread. A small pocket of innovative educators and advocates are at the forefront of these initiatives, but as of yet, we are primarily remedying sins of the past without addressing the challenges of the future.
As a certified tradesperson highly involved in the vocational training system, I have been returning to a single train of thought concerning the current climate. I have heard over and over again about how we need to convince the youth and their parents that choosing a career in the trades is as valid as choosing a to get a university degree, that choosing to work with one’s hands is no less noble than a white collar career path, that choosing a trade gives an equal or better financial outlook, but the questions we need to ask ourselves are:
Why must they choose one path or the other?
Why can’t we set up a system to allow them to do both?
• What about the student who excels at physics and math and loves to take things apart?
• What about the student who is passionate about food and cooking and wants to build a social media empire?
• What about the student who wants to make things out of wood but has an entrepreneurial spirit?
• Why can’t we create a pathway that converges vocational and academic education from the onset, instead of a remedial approach after years in the trade?
This is where opportunity presents itself if we as a community of industry and educators in both the academic and vocational worlds can see past our own historical biases and envision a newly unified system that integrates trades training and certification pathways and traditional degree-granting institutions. Of the industrialized nations, only Germany has fully integrated the vocational and academic streams into one system, and we have the opportunity to address our needs in a uniquely Canadian way.
In order to facilitate some discussion, let’s analyze how different (or not) our two streams of education are, and then discuss possible solutions.
The Current Systems
The academic system is built on a system of credits, with degrees being conferred upon those who have completed the credits required, including a set number of mandatory courses related to the field of study, and a set number of elective credits from additional areas of study to ensure the breadth of knowledge encompasses a fundamental set of critical thinking, communication, and problem solving skills. Some programs have a requirement of on the job experience related to the field of study, which also results in credits towards the degree. Courses may include a lecture, tutorial or lab component, and a minimum grade in the core subjects is required, with higher grades resulting in degrees with honours or distinction.
The vocational system is built around development of specific skills over time, with certification being granted upon the completion of the technical training (in-school) portion and the work-based training (apprenticeship) portion of the program, as well as national or provincially administered certification exams and in some cases practical assessments. Critical thinking, problem solving, math, and science are all built into the training and skill development in a contextual way, as they are directly related to performing the job at hand. Minimum grade requirements in the trades are generally higher than those required in the academic stream.
From a first glance these seem like two completely different approaches to education, being primarily “school based” or “work based”, but in closer comparison, are we really that far apart, or is it language and interpretation that confuses the issue?
Let’s take a closer look at the two pathways side by side and see how different they really are.
||Lecture, in school or online coursework
||Assignments, Tutorials and Labs (sciences)
||Optional Co-op or practicum or post -degree
||Lecture, in school
||Shop, in school and on job site with supervision
||Mandatory hour requirement with qualified sponsor/mentor
In comparison, both streams offer theoretical training and some hands on practical activity that is evaluated. The apprenticeship stream has a mandatory workplace component, while the academic stream has co-op ad practicum options (which may be mandatory in some programs). Both take approximately the same amount of time to complete and require the development of critical thinking, analytical and problem solving skills to different extents.
The challenges we face are not that we can’t see how academic credits can be applied to the learning that goes on in the trades, but more about delivery and scheduling. Trades training is generally delivered in block release, and in levels than encompass a number of subject areas. Academic delivery is course-based over a longer period of time, with each course and subject having its own learning outcomes and credits. Even colleges that offer both academic training and trades programs run the two on slightly different schedules, making it near impossible to navigate for a student interested in completing both streams.
With a pro-active approach and some innovation, especially with the advent of flexible learning and online training options, proposing a solution is within grasp. The K-12 system, as they deliver both types of training to some extent, has started to address these issues to some extent, and we see a large number of dual credit courses that grant students credit for post-secondary training based on secondary school course completion. This is where the dialogue needs to happen as we explore a new form of “dual credit” for the trades in the post-secondary world.
I don’t think we are that far off, if we look at typical completion requirements for a few select degrees and what granting similar credit for the trades training that goes into apprenticeship could accomplish. Currently, Academic credits are based on the Carnegie model, whereby 1 academic credit is assigned for approximately 15 hours of contact time. In the community college system vocational programs are offered 1 credit for every 30 hours of contact time, based on the assumption that approximately 50% of the contact time is spent on guided practice or hands-on training. Credits for workplace experience in the academic model are generally assigned 1 credit for each 140-160 hours of work experience. Using these as the basis, consider the following examples:
||Academic Credits required
||Credits for work experience (Co-op)
|Bachelor of Science (UBC)
||9 (additional) for ±1200 hours
|Bachelor of Commerce (UBC)
||9 (additional) for ±1200 hours
||Work Based Training
|Cook (Professional Cook 3) Apprenticeship
||18-36 (academic) +
31 (workplace experience)
||Technical Training is currently 25% Theory
||28-56 (academic) +
40 (workplace experience)
||Technical Training is currently 65% Theory
||40-80 (academic) +
37 (workplace experience)
||Technical Training is currently 100% theory
Some schools, like Thompson Rivers University are allocating up to 60 credits towards degrees for certified tradespeople, but we have yet to look at a strategy to link the two worlds from the onset. By refining the credits to be allocated for trades training to both core and elective degree requirements could lead to the development of a new type of “double major” that encompasses both the trades and academic worlds. In real terms, this would likely take 5-6 years for someone to complete, but the impact could be meaningful.
Food for Thought
Imagine a system where a student can choose to work on a carpentry apprenticeship and a commerce degree concurrently, or the student who is supplementing their degree as a mechanical engineer with work as a millwright. How about the student who is completing their Red Seal as a cook and is a few credits away from a marketing degree?
Imagine the impact on the economy of graduating a class of degree holding, Red Seal ticketed individuals, students who not only are finishing their degrees, but have a marketable skill, a few years’ experience in the workforce, and have not needed to incur debt in getting there. Doesn’t that sound like a choice you want our kids to have? It does for me.