OTTAWA – Canadians have much to learn from Germany’s famed apprenticeship system despite doubts it could succeed in Canada, Jason Kenney said as he wrapped up a fact-finding mission into how the European powerhouse streams its youth into skilled trades.
“Sure, we can’t pick up the German system and transplant it to Canada — that would be ridiculous,” the employment minister said in a telephone interview, adding it was a “lazy point of view” to be dismissive of the long-established German partnership among government, schools and business.
“Closer collaboration between the education system and employers is so important. Giving kids relevant information about what kind of education is likely to lead to promising careers and remuneration — these things don’t have to be unique to Germany.”
Kenney said Ottawa and provincial governments can also look at “ways of massively expanding paid co-op opportunities for students during post-secondary education” and consider “reinventing” vocational high schools.
The minister has been leading a 30-member delegation of Canadian politicians from five provinces, along with business and labour union representatives, on a trip to Germany and Great Britain to learn about their apprenticeship programs.
The group was in London on Thursday hearing about the British model, a system Kenney called more relevant to Canada because of “legal and cultural” similarities.
One delegate says the trip seems to have invigorated some of the biggest business organizations in Canada, including Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Both groups sent representatives.
“We’re not wearing our Ottawa stakeholder hats, we’re looking at this from a national perspective,” said Chris Smillie, senior adviser on government relations for the AFL-CIO’s Canadian chapter, which represents the country’s building trade unions.
“There’s a genuine interest, and lots of what we’re seeing could be done in Canada. The principles behind training have been reinforced and these guys seem really serious about changing the way we do things in Canada.”
One of the knocks against the German system, however, is that children as young as 10 are streamed into a system that combines both general and technical education. Some have suggested that robs students of the freedom to choose their career paths and wouldn’t fly in Canada
Kenney disagreed that the Germans deny children a say in what they want to do when they grow up.
“This is about choices for kids,” he said. “Sometimes the German system is criticized as being brutal with its streaming in the secondary school system. The truth is that they’re just trying to help reflect where kids’ aptitudes and interests are.”
The economic well-being of children was apparently top of mind for Kenney on his European trip.
The minister defended his recent remarks on the Conservative government’s income-splitting pledge by citing a famous American Democratic senator. Kenney found himself in hot water two weeks ago when he said “stable families” were critical to the future economic success of Canadian youth.
“My point was not about any particular configuration of families,” he said.
“Obviously there are kids of single moms and dads who do phenomenally well, and there are some kids in two-parent families that don’t. But my point is we should be empowering families to make the choices they think are best for their kids, and that should entail ending discrimination in the tax code against single-income, two-parent families.”
A litany of social research backs up his remarks, Kenney added, pointing to a 1960s study by former U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that warned about the consequences of the breakdown of the African-American family.
Moynihan, at the time a sociologist and research assistant at the U.S. Labor Department, called for more government action to improve the economic prospects of black families.
When the Conservatives campaigned on income-splitting in 2011, opponents accused them of wanting to use the tax system to keep women at home instead of in the paid workforce.
In the interview, Kenney scoffed at that suggestion and suggested a combination of a stable family background and skills training could ensure a path to success for Canadian youth.
“The truth is, yes, there are good outcomes on the whole for kids who go to university, but it’s also true that there are a whole lot of kids with university of degrees who are under-employed in an economy that has an acute skills shortage, particularly in technical areas. We shouldn’t be afraid of saying this.”
The biggest take away from the German portion of the trip, Kenney said, was that Canadian businesses simply must spend more money on training.
“Employers who are serious about their future and about addressing the skills gap need to put more money in the game,” he said, pointing to an OECD report that found Canadian companies have an abysmal record on skills training.
“We need to begin turning that around. That’s where the German system is a great example and inspiration for employers. … The German companies told us that it’s manifestly in everyone’s interest, it’s a huge commercial advantage, if they invest in training.”
Dan Harris, the NDP’s post-secondary education critic, commended Kenney for taking the trip but wondered what’s taken so long as Canada’s youth unemployment rate has lingered stubbornly at about 14 per cent for years.
“Why haven’t they been on this sooner?” he asked.
“We do have some solutions here at home, like a youth hiring tax credit, to give young people that step into employment while making it worthwhile for business. Why haven’t we been doing it? Why instead are we doling out corporate tax credits when not one of them has been tied to job creation?”
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25