Apprenticeship/Journeyman Ratio

Tim Hudak of Ontario is the latest Conservative politician to jump on the apprenticeship is good bandwagon.  Just recently Jason Kenney flies to Germany with a delegation of businessmen to study their world class apprenticeship system.   Even Jim Flaherty as Finance Minister got in on the act before he died.

I know this because I have been lucky enough to have worked with some German trained journeymen.   I learned some valuable tips of the trade that I pass on to the apprentices and young journeypersons who will listen so they are not all lost.  Why reinvent the wheel?   it just keeps coming out round.

In medievial  times  journeymen(French journée) was just a stage between apprenticeship and master craftsman.  Journeymen and their families would travel from master craftsman to master craftsman to learn different aspects and ways of practicing their trade.   The goal was to one day become a master craftsman themselves. (1)

 Working with many  journeypersons is beneficial for an apprentice because they are presented with a variety of ways to produce a product or service and to solve a problem.  It engages their higher level thinking skills as they judge which method is best for them. This is essential for innovation and design.  Journeypersons who work at a variety of different companies gain a catalogue of best practices that they can take with them throughout their working life.  This is why it is called skilled labour.

One of the major problems is that companies look at labour as a cost rather than seeing that a well trained work force is actually an asset.  That is why they cut their investment in training by 40% since 1993. (2).  I have seen too many companies just treating their apprentices as a source of cheap labour.  They keep the apprentices performing one or two tasks and don’t give them the opportunity to explore the full scope of their trade.  At work I would advise apprentices that I heard complaining about the task they were stuck performing to not do  it so good because that is why they were stuck doing it.

This might go back to the very idea of an apprenticeship as being  indentured to another human being.  Just read some of the language in the Revised Statutes of Ontario in 1970 (3) .  I was an electrical apprentice in Ontario in 1968 when the Progressive Conservatives under Premier John Robards ruled and my union employer had a 4 journeypersons to 1 apprentice ration.  It was just the way the system worked, it was fair, it applied equally to everyone.  In 1956 my father agreed to work an extra 6 months as an apprentice in order to keep working rather being a laid off journeyman, it was his choice.

Having a higher ratio means that once you are a journeyperson there would be work for you and you can put your training to good use.   When journeypersons see apprentices as a threat to their livelihood which I have seen happen in the 1/1 ratio system I worked in Alberta.   Journeypersons won’t share their knowledge or model professional behaviour to apprentices on the job because they fear if the apprentice becomes too proficient the higher priced journeyperson is vulnerable to lay off.

A bigger problem we face in Canada which is also a problem in Germany is lack of a coordinated federal apprenticeship education programs. You need a tool like the Ellis chart (7) to figure out all the different criteria.

Ontario in 1978 was still had a Progressive Conservative government but Bill Davis was now premier.  I decided to upgrade my skills and I took a 40 week course to gain entry into the welding trade.  I graduated with two Ontario pipe welding tickets.  Due to a shortage of work  I took my tickets west to Alberta to find that I would have to start at the bottom and challenge my way up.  At work I found they were more interested in my blue print reading skills than my welding so I began steel fabricating.

Another problem we face in Canada is that apprentices are not going through school in a timely fashion.  In my own experience I started steel fabricating in 1980 but it wasn’t until 1988 it became its own trade with its own curriculum and the Progressive Conservative government finally finished Westerra College and it had school space.  I ended up using my 8 years of experience to challenge the exam.  Studies  “showed that accessing any type of technical training greatly increased the probability of completion”. (4)

Studies also show that contrary to what Conservative politicians will tell you that “Bilginsoy (2003) shows that membership in a union is positively related to completion rates.” (5)  So I would suggest to Tim Hudak that he his supply side conservative friends that they fix some of the problems they caused rather than instead of constantly bashing unions.   Here in BC the government is busy rebuilding the apprenticeship system they let go a decade ago in order to boost apprenticeship completion rates and meet the demand for skilled trades people.  (6)

As I mentioned earlier corporations and their conservative friends see labour as a cost that must be kept down at all costs.   The funny thing is that one of the things that leads to the success of the German apprenticeship system that they admire is the German industrial system of union/management cooperation (7)

We need an apprenticeship system that allows our apprentices to develop their higher order thinking and problem solving skills in order to be considered truly skilled labour.

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