OTTAWA - Ever since taking on the Employment portfolio last summer, Jason Kenney has urged Canadian businesses to "put more skin in the game" in terms of skills training, even accusing them recently of "freeloading" on government programs.
It's a bold stance for a powerful cabinet minister in a Conservative government traditionally aligned with big business — and a message that wasn't entirely well-received at last week's right-wing Manning Networking Conference.
"It galls me to hear you suggesting that the private sector is freeloading off government because I remember the training programs that we in the private sector were running before you in government expropriated them," one audience member told Kenney following his address to the conference.
Kenney defended his remarks, saying he "cannot deny what the data tells us." Canada, he told the disgruntled businessman, is at "the bottom end in terms of the private sector spending on skills development."
To that end, Kenney and a Canadian delegation are travelling to Germany this weekend to study the European powerhouse's apprenticeship system, a long-established partnership between government, schools and business that most agree wouldn't fly in Canada.
Nonetheless, those travelling in Kenney's delegation describe the trip as a fact-finding mission to determine what elements of the German system could, indeed, be replicated in Canada.
In particular, they say, the delegation wants to know how to compel Canada's businesses to take on a bigger role in training their would-be employees, and to how to change the Canadian culture so that parents and youth alike view skilled trades as an honourable vocation.
"The trades are held in very high regard in Germany, unlike in Canada," Sean Reid of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada said in an interview Thursday.
"It's starting to change a bit here now, but there's still a stigma about trades that doesn't exist in Germany, and we want to know what they've done to mitigate and minimize that stigma, how they've elevated trades and promoted them as a valid career path."
There are also lessons to be learned in Germany for Canadian businesses, Reid added. Under the German system, employers are critical players in both workplace and classroom training programs that are tailored to match labour market demands.
"Employers play a very central role in the German training system," he said. "In Canada, employers do train, but what they haven't done as much of is to take institutional ownership of the training system the way employers have in Germany."
That might be because Canadian businesses, on average, are much smaller than their German counterparts, and may not have the resources to invest so heavily in training, said Ken Doyle, director of policy for Polytechnics Canada.
But Doyle and Reid — who are paying their own way to travel with the delegation, as are all members — say they want to hear first-hand how the Germans have achieved an eight per cent youth unemployment rate, the envy of the industrialized world.
"I want to ask the practitioners of the system what trends they're seeing, how they got to the stage where there's such an appreciation for the trades and what we can take away to plant the seeds for similar success in Canada," said Doyle.
Kenney has been lauding Germany for months as a nation that gets it right in terms of training workers via apprenticeship partnerships among government, schools and businesses.
His influence was readily apparent in last month's budget in which the Conservative government announced the creation of the Canada Apprentice Loan, an expansion of the Canada Student Loans Program, in its 2014 federal budget.
The fund will provide apprentices in so-called Red Seal trades with access to more than $100 million in interest-free loans every year to help them pay for their training.
During their trip overseas, Kenney and the Canadian delegation — including representatives from labour unions, trade associations and four provincial governments — will travel to various businesses and educational institutions in cities like Dusseldorf and Berlin to see first-hand how the German model works.
The Canadians will also head to England to hear about recent improvements to the British apprenticeship and training system.
"I'm pleased to be leading a delegation of provincial representatives, employers, educators, trainers and labour organizations to study the German and British systems to learn how we can apply best practices to Canada in order to improve our labour market system," Kenney said in a statement.
In his speech to the Manning conference over the weekend, Kenney lauded Germany once again, pointing out that many young Germans "make fantastic incomes" in skilled trades thanks to the country's apprenticeship system.
"While we are a model in many areas, we should also have some humility and recognize that perhaps we can learn a little bit from other countries," he said to applause.
There are reservations, however, about the German model, even among some of the delegation members.
In Germany, children as young as 10 years old are streamed into a system that combines both general and technical education. Some have suggested that robs students of the freedom to choose their future career paths.
"The German system is quite prescriptive; you're strongly encouraged to decide early on which path you're going down," says Reid of the Progressive Contractors group.
"It's one thing to encourage, it's another to prescribe."
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