Are apprenticeships the way forward?

Education and training for the 21st century

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

A major debate is currently raging about the value of a university education versus training that focuses on the acquisition of job-ready skills (especially apprenticeships and skilled trades).

Our own government even waded into this debate in last week’s federal budget with measures designed to expand apprenticeships and skills training.

The case for trades, apprenticeships

Many people argue universities are failing to adequately prepare graduates for the workforce, especially where students major in the humanities and social sciences. They point instead to the shortage of skilled tradespeople and the fact we have to recruit people abroad to do those jobs.

Skilled trades are generally well-paid and high in demand. And those who go into the trades are able to secure meaningful employment at a younger age and finish debt-free once they become fully-qualified journeymen.

With certain exceptions, the job market for recent university graduates is pretty dismal. Many students are graduating with a huge debt load as the cost of tuition and textbooks continue to skyrocket. And we’ve all heard stories about university graduates waiting tables or working as baristas in coffee houses just to make ends meet — if they can even find a job at all.

These days, a university degree is no guarantee of success. While recent graduates used to be fast-tracked into management training programs, having a bachelor’s degree no longer makes one “special” or “elite.” It sometimes seems just about everyone today has a B.A. with the result the value of a university education has been significantly diluted.

The case for attending university

Supporters of higher education argue the value of a degree is more about education for its own sake as opposed to the acquisition of job-ready skills. Other than the exception of professional programs like law, medicine or engineering, university was never about preparing graduates for work or for specific jobs. Instead, university is supposed to equip people to be better informed citizens.

Nevertheless, completing a university degree is one way of signaling to employers you have focus, drive and the ability to see a major project through to completion. And attending university is said to enhance one’s ability to communicate effectively, think critically, construct logical arguments, work with others, prioritize and manage time effectively — all highly valued by employers.

Proponents of university education also point to statistics showing people with a bachelor’s degree or higher generally earn more during their lifetimes and are less likely to be unemployed than those with a high school diploma or even community college. And universities have responded to the need for more practical programs through co-op programs, work placements and articulation agreements with community colleges.

Even where students major in something less “practical,” graduates can quickly enhance their degrees by completing short postgraduate programs through community college. And while many people argue we should have more graduates in the so-called “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) even technology companies need people with strong “soft” skills to do certain work.

New models for apprenticeships

Both sides of this debate have valid arguments, and my own personal opinion is somewhere in the middle.

For whatever reason, not enough people want to go into skilled trades, which can be quite lucrative and frequently require high levels of knowledge and skill. And not everyone can or should go to university.

But we would lose something as a society if we suddenly stopped teaching sociology, philosophy and art history at university. Most university graduates do eventually land on their feet, even if they have to take some extra college courses after graduation.

Not everyone can or should be a tradesperson. And apprenticeships as they’re currently structured aren’t perfect either.

For one thing, there’s a shortage of apprenticeship spots in some trades. And apparently the dropout rate is quite high in many programs.

Clearly, governments, employers, unions, colleges, universities and professional associations need to do more to help. So what about combining the best of both worlds so trainees can receive practical training and an academic education at the same time? 

Why shouldn’t an apprentice electrician be able to pursue a B.A. at night school or through distance learning while obtaining partial credit towards her degree for courses completed as part of the apprenticeship?

And why do we have apprenticeships essentially only for “blue collar” trades? Couldn’t we return, for example, to a model prevalent in the past and in other countries today with respect to the legal profession where prospective lawyers obtain their training through articling while completing exams?

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit 

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