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 Minister Jason Kenney with apprentices at Heathrow Academy in the U.K.

Sarah Anson-Cartwright, our Skills Director, is just back from a mission in the U.K. and Germany with the Hon. Jason Kenney, Minister of Employment and Social Development. Below are her thoughts on how the British are improving apprenticeships and what Canada can learn from that model.

The United Kingdom recently had a national debate on apprenticeships led by Doug Richard and followed by government commitments to implement changes. Last week, in a briefing in London, U.K. with Minister Kenney and his Canadian delegation, including the Canadian Chamber, Doug Richard was frank about what ails apprenticeships in Britain.

The British do not value apprenticeships, said Richard. Their lens is one of prestige, which admires lawyers (who also apprentice before applying to the bar) but not auto mechanics.

Reinforcing that attitude is the British secondary school system where the grading and funding of schools is based on the number of students going to universities. This built-in bias is aided by the absence (or rather abolition) of guidance counsellors in schools. Worse than in Canada, Britain does not promote vocational education to those who graduate from high school.

Although the British are tackling many of the same challenges as Canadians, they already have a head-start over us: apprenticeship completions are at 76%, compared with Canada’s 50% completion rate.

Unfortunately, the higher completion rate in Britain may be explained by a high rejection rate of would-be apprentices by employers who judge 70% of them to the employability requirements. Insufficient math and language skills are affecting secondary school graduates seeking to become apprentices in the U.K. (Canada suffers from the same educational shortfall, but allows relatively more apprentices to register, it seems.)

In the U.K., the curriculum is mandated by law but no outcome is required. Richard called for a clear endpoint. “What we micromanage is the journey without setting an outcome,” he told the delegation as he highlighted his suggested changes.

Although the British government agreed to implement virtually all of Richard’s recommendations, one contentious proposal remains open for debate: the transfer of apprenticeship funding to employers through a tax-based incentive and a linking of funding to apprentices passing exams. Putting funding and training decisions in the hands of British employers is similar in spirit to the Canada Job Grant.

Interestingly, the British have noted Canada’s record in increasing apprenticeship completion rates using tax credits. The U.K. recommendation suggests we, too, may want to explore how else to encourage employers in their critical hiring role in the system. For without employment, no apprentices can register and seek certification.

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