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Tories, looking to Germany, keen to do more on apprenticeship file

OTTAWA - Employment Minister Jason Kenney frequently lauds Germany as a nation that gets it right in terms of training workers via apprenticeship partnerships among government, schools and businesses.

The minister even took to Twitter on Wednesday, a week before the federal budget is to be tabled, to invite his provincial counterparts to travel to Germany with him to study the country's "skills training model."

As the Conservatives look for ways to deal with a shortage of skilled workers in Canada, there's a growing insistence that more can be done on the apprenticeship file — possibly in next week's budget.

If so, expect Germany to play a starring role in any new government initiatives on apprenticeships given the emphasis Kenney often places on that country's economic prowess.

"Perhaps we should look at the example of Germany — where Canada has 14 per cent youth unemployment, Germany has five per cent youth unemployment and the strongest labour market in Europe," Kenney said in a speech late last year.

"One half as many young Germans go and do academic post-secondary degrees, as is the case in Canada, but they have this very robust dual training system that encourages people, right from high school on, through a partnership between employers, unions, the state and federal governments to pursue a wide range of trades."

Under Germany's dual education system, classroom lessons are combined with hands-on technical experience. Children are streamed from a young age toward more than 300 trades in need of skilled workers — from sausage-making to car manufacturing and optician work.

The German apprenticeship system is indeed the envy of the world thanks to the country's low youth unemployment rate, even though growing numbers of Germans graduating from high school are now opting to go to university instead of starting an apprenticeship.

The trend is causing small businesses in Germany to fear that they'll soon struggle to fill skilled jobs.

The Tories, meantime, have been stepping up their efforts on a Canadian-style apprenticeship system.

The Atlantic provinces and Ottawa recently announced changes in the Maritimes' local apprentice certification system so that apprentices from Atlantic Canada are able to work and train with greater ease.

There are 13 separate apprenticeship programs in Canada, each with different requirements and expectations.

Skilled tradespeople often face "great difficulty in completing their training if they move from one system to another," Conservative MP Scott Armstrong wrote in an op-ed piece in the Truro Daily News on Wednesday.

"The recent changes are a first step to address this in Atlantic Canada. ... The Atlantic provinces and the federal government will work to streamline apprenticeship training, certification and standards, making them consistent across the region."

Experts, however, say that while it's feasible the Tories might pour more money into apprenticeship initiatives next week, they predict any push to duplicate the German model would be bound for failure in Canada.

"It's amusing to watch every five years as someone rediscovers the German apprenticeship program," Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, said in an interview.

"But the German system is the result of 150 years of very close co-operation between government, educators and business.

"It's very good at what it does, but it would be very difficult to do it here because the education system is literally built around these apprenticeships in Germany in ways that are impossible here."

Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, agrees.

"Culturally, I don't think we're there yet," she said.

"The German system is more directed in terms of streaming, and that's not really something in Canada that most parents or students or citizens think is necessarily a good idea — to direct people to do what the economy wants, rather than giving them a choice."

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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