During a recent trip to the UK to look at apprenticeship systems, I experienced one of those wonderful ‘Aha!’ moments. I was at a meeting in London with the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (SEMTA), and one of their managers showed me a presentation he was going to deliver in Northern Ireland later that week. He talked about the need for clear competency-based linkages between different levels on the qualifications pyramid, with clear linkages between all the elements of post-secondary education.
He spoke from experience – now the British equivalent of a professional engineer and a senior executive, he began his career as an apprentice machine fitter (what we would call a millwright) in a manufacturing facility in Yorkshire – apparently not all that unusual a situation in the UK.
As we talked, the substantial differences between the UK and Canadian approaches to post-secondary education became apparent.
To begin, let’s look at what happens in Canada. One of the main focuses of the Canadian public education system for the last several decades (whether explicitly stated or not) has been to prepare students for university. This has manifested itself in many ways, the most visibly in the mothballing of technical and vocational programs in high schools, the continuing pressure from community colleges to abandon their original purpose to become universities, and the languishing of apprenticeship and other workplace skills development approaches.
The result of this bias toward the academic is an inversion of the pyramid that SEMTA described in their presentation: a top-heavy situation where too many people enter university, graduate, and then can’t find work, and too few homegrown candidates enter the trades at the foundation of the pyramid.
For example, in Ontario in 2006-7, there were 357,468 students enrolled fulltime in university; about 150,000 enrolled fulltime in community colleges, and about 120,190 registered apprentices (note that other statistics show only about 25,000 per year are going to school, which would indicate the number that are actively learning is much lower than this).
One could make the argument that the erosion of the North American manufacturing base since the 1960’s has followed in parallel with the inversion of the pyramid. One could also argue that the erosion of the manufacturing base was inevitable because the pyramid was inverted. The reality is probably that the two phenomena are linked, and more research needs to be conducted to clearly understand the cause-effect relationship that exists between the two phenomena. Let’s look at one hypothesis, and follow it through.
If the inversion of the pyramid is a natural phenomenon that is a reflection of market forces, what drives people to seek university education in lieu of apprenticeship or college? Could it be that young people (and their parents) see community college and apprenticeship as dead ends, and therefore direct themselves to university? If you look for linkages and pathways between the components of the post-secondary system, it’s clear that this argument has merit.
As it exists today, there are no clear links between the layers in the pyramid. Apprenticeship leads to journeyperson status, and then things pretty much end. Similarly, a college program leads to a 2 or 3 yr diploma attesting to certain skills, but again, things plateau there. We’re talking generalities here… exceptions do exist, but the general trend is that there are no clear pathways between the layers: an electrical journeyperson with plenty of technical skills in computer programming and automation has little chance of entering a college technology program at a higher level, and a graduate of that same program has little chance to enter an electrical engineering program at a higher level than a recent high school graduate. The engineering graduate can become the CEO of a major multi-national corporation. The journeyperson? It’s possible, but the path isn’t as clear. If you were that high school student (or the student’s parents) where would you want to start?
Bob Rae (former Premier of Ontario, current Liberal MP for Toronto Centre and Foreign Affairs critic) wrote a report on the future of education in Ontario (Ontario: Leader in Learning (AKA ‘The Rae Report’)) that touched on exactly this problem. He rightly pointed out that apprenticeship, community college and university were all part of the post-secondary education system, which needed to become the lifelong learning system, and that no one entering the system at any level should have to start over because of a choice they made when they were a teenager.
“Not everyone wakes up at the age of 12, decides to become a dentist, and then proceeds in an orderly way through the system. It is important to let qualified students move between institutions” 
The parts of the system need to be integrated, with clear pathways between the streams identified, and standardized criteria for recognizing acquired skills established so that the system can respond flexibly to emerging economic needs. Smart ideas, but 5 years after that report was published, it seems little progress has been made.
One problem is the somewhat fractured nature of education in Canada, due to the 14 jurisdictions that currently exercise control (and allocate funding). Education (and certification) is a provincial responsibility, which means there are 13 education ministries across the country, each of which handles their responsibilities in slightly different ways. Add a Federal layer alongside and there is a degree of complexity, inefficiency and duplication of effort that hampers change. Not to get into a constitutional debate, but what made sense in 1867 just might not be so smart in 2010. Education and skills development are vital to the well being of the country, and we risk falling behind our competitors if the current patchwork of policies continues.
It also seems clear that some of the professional certification bodies have a built-in bias against the sorts of recommendations made in the Rae Report. True, some universities and colleges have established reciprocal agreements that allow the sort of movement Rae described, but this is nowhere near universal, and certainly in the case of engineering schools can put a University’s accreditation with the PEng societies at risk. According to one faculty member at an Ontario university, when the audit committee comes to look at an engineering program that has admitted community college trained technologists at an advanced standing, inevitably they zero in on that particular individual’s progress for scrutiny – the so-called weakest link theory.
Community colleges aren’t really helping their case either. The community college system was established in the 1960’s to provide technical and vocational skills. In their original form, they filled a niche between unskilled work and professional work, and the model has been very successful. Despite this vital role, there is a clear drive among these technical/vocational institutions to become more like universities… and in some cases they’ve received their charters. While granting applied and associate degrees may allow them to attract a different breed of student, and potentially increase their revenue streams, this move is foolhardy if it is done at the expense of technical education – and in many instances this seems to be the case.
In contrast, let’s look at the UK model. Built on the basis of national vocational qualifications (NVQs), it clearly links progression through the education system to nationally recognized competency standards. Recently, a mechanism has been established to tie partial award of recognized credentials to workplace training and other mechanisms for learning that will allow workers to achieve NVQs piecemeal over the course of a career. These sub-qualifications are documented, competency-based, and linked to pan-European frameworks that increase options for individuals. Changing careers, advancement and other horizontal and lateral movement thus involves learning only those elements that are different from the qualification(s) already held.
The elegance of the system is apparent. An individual can enter the workforce in an unskilled “McJob”, move on toward an apprenticeship (yes, the UK has apprenticeships for things other than what we would call “skilled trades”), achieve a national certification in their occupation, work for a time and then leverage their learning and experience to advanced placement in higher education streams. It is a meritocracy that allows multiple pathways to lifelong learning and careers. No one who has the ability is left behind. No pre-determined dead ends. And growing skills at home helps keep domestic industries stay competitive. Sounds like a pretty smart way of developing your people, and by extension your economy.
It’s high time Canadians took off the blinders and looked at education and workforce training as a national strategic imperative. It’s time we broke down the parochial and often arbitrary barriers that exist with our disparate post-secondary education systems. It’s time to stop discriminating against one stream or another of the post-secondary system, and it is time to develop clear, coherent national standards for education and training as the foundation for a better, more flexible and more competent workforce. The alternative is the continued hollowing out of our industrial capability and ultimately the lowering of our standard of living. Is that REALLY the future we want for our kids?