Employment Minister Jason Kenney is taking a Canadian delegation on a study tour of Germany and the U.K. this week to learn from their respective education and skills training systems, a model he has touted as "enormously successful" and one Canada could learn from.
Germany's dual system of vocational education and training, where students learn a trade for a few years and then go on to obtain a university degree, is said to be one of the major factors in the country's economic success.
A small contingent from Saskatchewan as well as representatives from Alberta, Ontario and P.E.I. will be accompanying Kenney on the tour. Over a dozen stakeholder groups including business and labour leaders will also be on the six-day tour with Kenney.
In an interview with CBC News, Saskatchewan's Minister of Advanced Learning Rob Norris said the fact-finding mission is an opportunity for the province to learn best practices from world leaders.
"We're at a stage where some fresh eyes and some fresh ideas may serve us very well when we begin to think about how can we be undertaking our work better," Norris said in a phone interview with CBC News on Thursday.
"Building partnerships with industry and our post-secondary educational institutions but also starting those partnerships maybe even earlier so that we can get more young people interested in the trades and apprenticeships."
Norris will travel with the Institute of Applied Science and Technology as well as the provincial Building and Construction Trades Council.
"Let's give our young people as many choices as possible so they can see clearly a job at the end of the training program," Norris said, adding that Saskatchewan also wants to ensure there is greater access for First Nations and Métis students in the trades.
And that's precisely what Kenney hopes the provinces will take away from this trip — new ways to connect Canadians who are looking for work with open jobs.
"To learn how we can apply best practices to Canada in order to improve our labour market system," Kenney said in a statement sent to CBC News.
The employment minister, who recently earned himself some good will among his provincial counterparts by negotiating a notably different Canada Job Grant than the one originally proposed, has made no secret about the fact that he'd like to encourage the provinces to "re-engineer" their education systems.
"For too long our education system has been gearing young people away from the kinds of trades and vocations where they can make remarkable livelihoods," Kenney said during a speech at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa last week.
"You have many young Germans making fantastic incomes as master craftsmen and ticketed journeymen in their early twenties realizing their potential and many of them a few years later then go to university and further upgrade their skills."
"I think we as Canadians, while we are a model in many areas, we should have some humility and recognize that perhaps we can learn a little bit from other countries," Kenney told the audience gathered in Ottawa.
Stigma around trades
The stakeholders on the delegation want 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 with The Canadian Press on 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, Ken Doyle, director of policy for Polytechnics Canada told The Canadian Press.
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.
February's federal budget announced the creation of the Canada Apprentice Loan, an expansion of the Canada Student Loans Program.
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.