Skilled trades and apprenticeship education have long been massive drivers to Alberta’s economic engine. It is not a secret that for many, this is seen as the quickest path to making a decent income. Terry Hintz, born and raised Albertan, is one of them.
Hintz earned her welding certificate at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in 2013. It was a fallback plan should her husband become unable to work. “This was my sole purpose in earning my ticket, and then I moved on to other things,” she says. “But it’s good to have this training to fallback on.”
The education was affordable, leaving Hintz loan and debt-free upon earning her ticket. Her biggest challenge was the variety of student attitudes her instructors had to deal with, including students keen to learn lumped in with others simply paid to be there. Some of the less-interested students wasted class time. “They made things very awkward for everyone involved,” she recalls.
Fast forward eight years and Alberta’s skilled trades and apprenticeship education system is set for an overhaul thanks to recently passed legislation to modernize it. It’s a response to predicted labour demands in upcoming years and the need for increased hands-on real-world training scenarios. The new framework supports the province’s economic recovery, stimulates job creation and allows employers to better develop their own talent.
“We know there are thousands of tradespeople retiring every year in the province,” says Alberta’s Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides. “We need to recruit and encourage more young Albertans to pursue incredibly successful career opportunities in the trades.”
It’s an exciting time for the province and for apprenticeship education, says Matthew Lindberg, Dean, School of Skilled Trades, NAIT. “The new legislation and structure deals with all the existing trades here in the province, but there’s also an opportunity to explore apprenticeship-like programming branching out even further than our current offerings.”
The strategy, Alberta 2030: Building Skills for Jobs, responds to recommendations made by the Skills for Jobs Task Force, a cross-section of representatives from postsecondary institutions and trade unions. Their final report submitted last fall called for a complete rewrite of the 30-year-old Apprenticeship and Industry Training Act, with approximately 50 improvement recommendations.
“We listened to these experts and took their advice to heart,” says Nicolaides, adding that other countries often hold trades and apprenticeship to a higher esteem than Canada. The improvements aim to change that. “We want to create an environment where a trade certificate has the same value, merit and worth in society as a university degree.”
Lindberg agrees, “We know that apprenticeship has changed, and our industry has certainly changed. The technology is rapidly changing with emerging technologies coming in while old technologies are being phased out or revitalized. Course outlines struggle to be updated and keep up,” he says.
The case for increased programming under the apprenticeship model of education is not new. For instance, pursuing a law degree includes an articling component for students to practice in the workplace environment.
The first step to a modernized system with added programming required the new framework to differentiate skilled trades from apprenticeship education.
“Previously, if you wanted to pursue apprenticeship-style education, you had to be on a trajectory towards a designated trade. This included a lot of regulation and lacked flexibility,” says Nicolaides. “By distinguishing a trade from apprenticeship education, we can better train and educate students who pursue a new career such as coding, banking or graphic design using the apprenticeship style of system, without necessarily having it become a designated trade.”
NAIT and other institutions are reviewing existing programs within business, technology and other departments to identify opportunities that bring employers into the fold earlier in a student’s journey. “We can see apprenticeship-like programming expand into other areas we typically haven’t thought of as apprentice type programs before,” says Lindberg.
New trades will also be created with improved delivery in apprenticeship education going forward. Lindberg says, “Students attended their training at the postsecondary institution for eight weeks with strict attendance policies and oversight around what they had to learn, along with standardized provincial exam testing across the province.” Such outdated apprenticeship structures are under review to create a more efficient system and get skilled workers back into the workplace more effectively. “Being required to attend eight weeks of technical training despite the ability to demonstrate these skills and prove the knowledge is not ideal,” adds Lindberg. “We want to support them to progress at a quicker, more flexible rate.” It’s a scenario Hintz would have welcomed.
Relationships among postsecondary institutions, students and employers should also be streamlined. “This allows us to get students back to their employer and have them working, earning money, contributing to Alberta’s economy and supporting employers’ success more quickly when they demonstrate those skills,” says Lindberg, adding that if they’re not, “we’ll work with them to get them to that point where they are ready to transition back to employment.”
Previously, certified professionals returning to postsecondary studies to pursue a diploma or bachelor program received little recognition for their skills and knowledge.
“The new legislation gives journeypersons and those with a trade certification greater academic recognition,” says Nicolaides. “It opens so many more doors for our trades professionals to build on their prior knowledge while upgrading and completing a diploma or degree.”
More flexible routes into trades and apprenticeship education are also anticipated.
“Journeypersons will now have the opportunity to ladder into other programs,” says Lindberg. “This will help them be successful in their current career and potentially change careers or move into a managerial or entrepreneurial position.”
That flexibility component supports the creation of new diplomas. Students interested in a trade but struggling to find employment now have more entry options. “Or, if someone has taken that apprenticeship path and wants to move over into a diploma-style pathway, that ability will be there,” says Lindberg. “These are options we’ve never had before.”
Once formed, the new Board of Skilled Trades will enjoy more increased flexibility, independence and autonomy than the previous Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board.
“The new board, along with the entire governance framework, is a way to build stronger partnerships,” says Nicolaides. “We found ways to give more authority and decision-making independence to the Board of Skilled Trades rather than having all that authority vested in government and its associated bureaucracy. It will make the trades environment more streamlined, efficient and responsive.”
It also comes with stronger representation from across the industry. “For the trade system to operate effectively, we need government, industry employers, representative unions and postsecondary institutions all at the table. These are the four critical partners that make the system function well and will reinvigorate the system,” adds Nicolaides.
“We’re looking forward to contributing in response to the feedback we’re hearing from our industry partners [and students] we know are critical to the success of this system,” says Lindberg. “We want to explore how we can make things better, more efficient, and ensure the curriculum keeps up with the rapidly changing technologies.”
NAIT’s newly launched diploma programs in four compulsory trades – plumbing, welding, automotive service and electrical installations technology – are already virtually full for this September’s start.
Lindberg notes, “We launched them quickly knowing those trade areas are going to see significant labour shortages in the near future. This other pathway is going to be just as appetizing for some of these younger demographics, especially those wanting to move directly from high school into a trade. Work is underway to improve options in new and existing programs that will become more apprenticeship-like in the future. There’s more news to come by year’s end.”
Alberta’s government invites postsecondary institutions and industry groups to submit proposals requesting new certificate and diploma programs structured with paid on-the-job mentorship as an educational component. Nicolaides explains, “Any applicable area – coding, cyber security, graphic design, banking, marketing, business, and others, will be considered.”
October’s application deadline will see accepted proposals qualify for grant funding to support program design and implementation.
“There’s a real exciting opportunity for Alberta to be trailblazers here,” Nicolaides concludes. “I firmly believe other provinces will be looking at these changes and thinking about replicating them in the future. We’re eager to embark on these initiatives.”