Katharine Palmer, an advanced civil engineering apprentice, works with a fuse at the London Underground Engineer Training Centre. Philippa Wolff
Both Canada and Britain are proposing huge financial commitments for apprenticeships this year, but their approaches differ considerably.
The goal is common. Both governments want to fill jobs, strengthen economies and keep students out of debt.
But at the heart of the debate is where the money should go. In the U.K., $313.6 million is set to go to employers creating new apprenticeships, an upgrade to previous funding. This is in addition to funding for training, which includes $37 million this year.
In Canada, apprentices themselves are the target, with $100 million planned in new federal loans being among the latest in a series of initiatives since 2006 directed mostly to apprentices themselves.
This latest case represents thousands of loans worth $4,000 each going to apprentices training in the Red Seal trades, which include construction, plumbing and hairstyling.
Canadian apprentices also have access to provincial funding, which, like federal funding, often includes grants and tax credits. However, some provinces, like Ontario and, recently, Manitoba, focus on employers as well.
But even with thousands of skilled-trade jobs that need to be filled, only 19 per cent of employers take apprentices, says Sarah Watts-Rynard, executive director of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.
"Employers who are already hiring and training often tell us that they don't need any special incentives to do it," says Watts-Rynard. "They recognize that this is a really successful way to recruit, train and retain the skilled trades people that they require."
The other 81 per cent, who often "don't see themselves as trainers," need more encouragement," she says, not only in grants but government demand.
In Britain, that kind of encouragement comes in the form of significant employer training grants and funding, says Philip Howard, the lead engineer trainer for Transport for London, the agency that oversees London's bus, train and tube service.
And it seems to be working.
As of April 17, 100,000 employers had apprentices in the U.K.
Apprentices represent 2.2 per cent of Canada's labour force, a total of 426,000 apprentices, according to a recent report for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. By comparison Australian apprentices represent 3.7 per cent of its workforce, while in Britain it is 2.7 per cent.
Behind the raw numbers, registered apprentice numbers have been incrementally increasing in the U.K., particularly since huge leaps in 2010 and 2011, says the U.K. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
However, despite similarly timed government attention, registration stalled in Canada in 2011 – apprentice numbers went down one per cent from 2010, according to Statistics Canada.
That same year, in the midst of a worldwide recession, the number of new undergraduates in Canadian universities surpassed the one million mark for the first time, says the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.
Still, Watts-Rynard describes years like 2011 as a "flat line" in an "upward trend."
Another possible difference in Britain's approach is that it seems to be reaching apprentices in a younger age bracket than their Canadian counterparts.
For Katharine Palmer, in her second year of a London Underground advanced civil engineering apprenticeship, leaving behind her European literature university program was obvious.
"It was a completely useless thing to do. I'm never going to use this again except for maybe in a pub quiz. It's a good pub quiz degree, but that's it," the 24-year-old said.
"I so resented feeling my degree was so useless. So I thought, what is the most useful thing I could possibly do."
She was also keen to find a way to stop paying for her own education.
Her interest in art and architecture, alongside high-level math and science classes in secondary school, brought her to engineering.
In her program with the London Underground alone, the apprentice numbers between 2012 and 2013 tripled – from 15 to 46, a result her lead trainer suggests comes down to increased investment and interest.
Last year, Matthew Hancock, Britain's under-secretary of state for skills, told Parliament that the government's increased interest in apprenticeships was largely to encourage apprenticeships as having the same stature as a university education.
That's something Palmer agrees is important. When she was younger, she was told "if you were in any way intelligent, what you did was university." Getting past that stigma was hard, she says, but, with university fees rising, attitudes are changing.
"I know quite a few people who are graduates, and are doing very, very low paid jobs, and then there's me who never graduated university, but I'm still in a quite well-paid job," Palmer said.
Edging closer in salaries
At the University of Toronto, economist Morley Gunderson has studied the financial returns of apprenticeships in Canada.
And while his research doesn't show much evidence that apprentice salaries come close to that of university graduates, he says that statistics since 2006 show that male apprentices in particular are edging closer.
As a result, he suggests, the grants and proposed loans for apprentices may be unnecessary.
Government funding, he says, is likely for political reasons – to show that the government supports apprenticeships in a country that has not always valued them in the past.
"Apprenticeship is, potentially, a much more viable alternative than what we thought in the past, in Canada," he said. "They seem to be a more direct link to employment and jobs."
He says he would advise his kids toward apprenticeships rather than dropping out of high school, but he would still encourage them to go to university over apprenticing.
For her part, Palmer hasn't ruled out university. She says that, after her apprenticeship, her manager plans to help her get a civil engineering degree at university. That help will likely include paying her way.
That, Palmer says, means she'll not be left paying university fees, but with money in her own pocket to spend as she wants.