04/20/2014 10:25 EDT | Updated 06/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada's Apprenticeships Should Be Boosted, U.S. Expert Says

OTTAWA - A respected American labour specialist says governments, educators and employers should work together to boost the number of apprenticeships for young Canadians in a collaborative approach that would yield "significant payoffs."

Robert Lerman's report, commissioned by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and obtained by The Canadian Press, says a comprehensive expansion of apprenticeships would provide young people with greater opportunities for more promising careers and potentially slash the rate of youth unemployment.

The study also asserts that apprenticeships aren't just a route to jobs in the skilled trades, but could represent an option for young Canadians in a variety of fields and should become a common recruitment strategy for a wide range of industries and sectors.

Those sectors include banking, sales and information technology.

"Continuing the emphasis on 'trades' is counterproductive since it suggests that apprenticeships are limited to a relatively narrow range of occupations," says Lerman, a professor of economics at American University in Washington, D.C., and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Berlin.

Almost half of Canada's 426,000 registered apprentices currently work as mechanics, carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

Lerman's report compares Canada's apprenticeship system to those in countries that include Germany, Switzerland, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney recently lead a Canadian delegation to Germany and Great Britain to study their apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeships were also a key plank of the government's 2014 budget, in particular the announcement of the Canada Apprentice Loan. That fund, an expansion of the Canada Student Loans Program, 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.

Amid a Conservative focus on apprenticeships, stakeholders have said they're mystified that the government's mammoth new infrastructure project, the New Building Canada Plan, doesn't contain any provisions for apprentices.

Some have accused the government of missing a critical opportunity in its efforts to build new infrastructure across Canada. Federal officials say procurement is provincial jurisdiction and Ottawa cannot mandate the involvement of apprentices.

Ottawa kicked off its $14-billion New Building Canada Fund late last month, part of the government's 10-year, $53-billion infrastructure plan.

Lerman's report also points out that Canada's apprenticeship system is aimed primarily at adults aged 25 and older, and does little to ease the transition for young Canadians from the classroom to the labour market. That's in stark contrast to apprenticeship systems in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

"A more extensive system of apprenticeship in Canada would require close collaboration between high schools and employers," Lerman writes. "Importantly, it would require extensive counselling on apprenticeship and other career-oriented options by Grade 10."

Lerman's report concludes that expanding apprenticeships would hike income levels for workers in middle-skill occupations while relieving some of the economic pressure on governments to increase spending on colleges and universities.

"Implementing these and other recommendations for expanding Canada's apprenticeship system would yield significant payoffs," Lerman writes.

He cites everything from a lower youth unemployment rate to a reduced burden on Canadian taxpayers as employers shoulder a bigger share of the costs of education and training.

The Canadian Council of Chief Executives says it commissioned Lerman's study "as part of a multi-year effort to improve the quality of education and skills training in Canada while enhancing young people’s ability to succeed in the 21st century job market."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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