Apprenticeship, as a form of instruction in which a novice learns from a master of a craft or art, has existed for thousands of years. The craft guilds of western Europe, which developed in the 7th and 8th centuries, formalized the apprenticeship system and retained control of it until the 16th century. Until the late 19th century, apprenticeship was the sole means for people to acquire the skills for almost all occupations (see Apprenticeship in Early Canada).
In early 19th-century Canada, apprenticeship training was carried on by the skilled tradesmen who immigrated from Europe. The training was sporadic and it varied even within a particular trade, but as long as a supply of skilled people was readily available through immigration, the lack of training presented no urgent problem. But as Canada became industrialized, it was necessary to develop a Canadian apprenticeship program. As a result of strong pressures from the building trades, led by Joseph Piggott, Ontario passed the first Apprenticeship Act in 1928, providing for regulation and support of apprenticeship. British Columbia (1935) and Nova Scotia (1936) passed Apprenticeship Acts modelled on the Ontario legislation.
In 1944, under the Vocational Training Co-ordination Act, the federal government arranged to enter into an agreement with any province to provide financial assistance for apprentice training. As a result, the majority of provinces enacted legislation establishing apprenticeship programs. Generally provincial legislation provides for the regulation of apprentice training, the establishment of trade-advisory committees and the appointment of a director of apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship system is now being practised in several hundred trades. The provinces have established a co-operative Interprovincial Standards Program to provide for acceptance of certification in all provinces for apprentices who meet the interprovincial standard.
Apprenticeship is an economically sensitive, industry-driven training system. It is founded on a contractual relationship between an employee and an employer in which the employer agrees to provide opportunities for the employee-apprentice to learn the skills required for a trade under the supervision of someone already qualified in that trade. The period of training is usually from 3 to 5 years and follows a structured training program or curriculum. Up to 90% of the training occurs in the workplace; some of the concomitant theoretical knowledge is taught at an institution, generally a community college or institute of technology (see NAIT; SAIT). The apprentice's progress is monitored by the director of apprenticeship in each province, who also certifies the successful completion of the training by issuing a certificate of qualification.
Apprentices are generally paid a prescribed percentage of the certified journeyman's wage, which increases throughout the apprenticeship period. The costs of the in-school portion of the training have been paid by the federal government, which has also been providing apprentices with a living allowance or unemployment insurance payments. Federal support has been shrinking and the federal government has announced its intention to get out of market training programs. Employers receive a return from the apprentices' labour. In certain trades that are considered critical to the Canadian economy, the federal government provides substantial subsidies to employers of apprentices. In some provinces the subsidies for women apprentices have been increased to encourage the training of women in nontraditional occupations.
Under the apprenticeship system, a fixed number of hours must be devoted to the practical and theoretical aspects of the curriculum, on the grounds that an employer can thus recover part of the costs of training by having an apprentice with some of the skills of a journeyman for a period of time at less cost than the full journeyman rate. It is also contended, particularly by unions, that competence is best achieved by allowing apprentices to practise their skills in a work setting over a period of time.
The regulation of apprentice wage rates as a percentage of a journeyman's wages has been criticized as a barrier to the entry of young people into apprenticeships. It is argued that the rates are too high or too inflexible for current labour market conditions. Various alternatives have been proposed, including complete deregulation (which would permit apprentice wage rates to be set by collective bargaining in unionized industries or by labour-market forces) and a system of using the minimum wage as a base and of raising wages by percentage through the period of apprenticeship.
Another major issue concerns the current requirement for comprehensive training. Many smaller companies cannot offer instruction in all the necessary skills of a trade. In some cases, therefore, apprentices are contracted to associations of employers who move the apprentices from company to company to learn the full range of skills. Another strategy - the modular curriculum system - is used widely and successfully in the mining industry and is being extended to industrial trades. The modules outline training in discrete packages. Apprentices are credited for the completion of each module and on completing all modules receive a certificate of qualification. The critics of the modular approach have expressed fears that its widespread use will lead to fragmentation of the trades into narrow specialities.
It is well documented that there are many more well-qualified young people in Canada who wish to enter apprenticeship than there are available openings, and that the major barrier to apprenticeship is the inability of employers to offer such training when unfavourable economic or business conditions preclude the hiring of more employees.