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January 2, 2023

Modern Apprenticeship – A Rethink of the Time-Based Model

The following article was written by Dr. Lindsay Langill, Director of People and Strategy for VICA-Member PPM Civil Constructors.

Stories often have a way to help our minds further understand a phenomenon. According to Greek mythology, Procrustes was an innkeeper who operated his establishment along a busy road. He believed in uniformity. Yet not all travelers that he compelled to sleep in the iron guest bed were the same size and thus if they were too tall, he would cut off their limbs or if they were too short, he would stretch them to make them fit the bed. This story has led us to what we understand today as the Procrustean Rule – a standard that enforces uniformity without regard for individuality.

Within education there are well established learning theories that not only explain how learning takes place but also why learning occurs. These theories provide us with a relevant conceptual framework for interpreting the learning processes and direct our attention to those variables that are crucial in achieving the desired outcomes. There are many long-standing learning theories such as behaviourism, constructivism, cognitivism, and social learning theories, so it would be appropriate to state that learning theories provide guidance in the design, development, and implementation of an effective training program intended to increase workforce competence, capacity for change, and competitiveness. What must be understood is that no two people learn in the same way.

Current Model of Apprenticeship Training

The current Canadian model of apprenticeship training has seen little change over time. Better known as a “time-based system,” it is a system that requires each registered apprentice to attend the same amount of time in school and compile a minimum set number of work-place hours prior to writing a final qualification exam. Apprentices are released from their place of employment to attend school for a short period of time each year. The period of time spent in school is the same for each student. To provide example, an electrical apprentice attending the second level of technical training will attend school for 10 weeks and the lesson constructs will follow a prescribed program outline that covers all the competencies/tasks required of a second-year apprentice. This current program methodology works if all students have the same background, experience, and learning style. But what about the student who comes to the class with advanced experience in support of these competencies or for the student who may do better through a different learning modality? Time based systems follow the Procrustean rule of uniformity where individuality is not a consideration.

The Current Employment Dilemma

A recent news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put out by the US Department of Labor shows the current unemployment rate at 3.5% with a continued downward trend. The Canadian Labour market reveals a similar trend with the unemployment rate at 5.2%. One sector that relies heavily on the apprenticeship system to train up skilled men and women is the construction sector. Residential, Commercial, and Industrial construction employers depend heavily on having a skilled workforce to complete their projects. Skilled trades are in demand and companies are competing for labor. In many instances, employers are holding their apprentices back from attending technical training as they can not afford the loss of a productive apprentice in a tight labor market. It is not that employers do not value the schooling; they just do not have the labor capacity to replace the apprentice during this time while they are away at school.

A Model for Consideration – Competency Based Training

Long practiced in countries such as Australia, Europe, and the UK, competency-based training and assessment have a respected history. But what is competency-based training? According to the National Skills Center of Australia, “competency-based training is a structured approach to training and assessment that is directed toward achieving specific outcomes.” Another research group states that “what sets competency-based training apart from other more traditional methods of training and assessment, is that it is learner-focused and flexible. Leaners are actively involved in shaping their learning journeys, supported by competencies which allow a natural progression through the hierarchy of expertise.”  When learners have a deep understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and the competencies where they lack or excel, they are better able to focus their development efforts to improve their shortcomings. Identifying a learner’s training gaps allows for targeted training which can lead to a more highly skilled individual. Competency based training places the emphasis on individual skills rather than the overall learning experience which can save considerable time. Another researcher stated that “compared with the traditional approach to training, the competency-based approach potentially leads to individualized flexible training, a reduction in time away from the workplace, transparent standards, and increased public accountability.”

In summary, a modernized approach to apprenticeship training could be a move away from the time-based model to a competency-based approach, thus saving the apprentice time away from the workplace while allowing individuality to occur in learning using the behavioral approach. Reducing time away from the workplace would benefit the employer while a tailored training approach that focuses on individual skills could help modernize the Canadian apprenticeship system. A competency-based system could benefit all stakeholders in trades and apprenticeship training and would provide a good starting point towards modernizing apprenticeship.

Dr. Lindsay Langill holds Red Seal certification as a Welder and Industrial Mechanic and has a Bachelor of Education and Master of Arts degree from UBC along with a Doctorate from the University of Calgary. He is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC, Director of People and Strategy for Pacific Pile and Marine ULC, and Chair of the JLATA Board.