Apprenticeship start rates are high… but so is attrition!

Jeff Griffiths,

A lot has been done over the last few years to get more people interested in starting an apprenticeship, and the effort seems to be working: apprenticeship starts are at an all time high. However, the attrition rate for apprentices isn’t improving – StatsCan’s Registered Apprentice Information System (RAIS) data for 2010 showed that the percentage of apprenticeship dropouts actually increased from 2005 to 2010 (from around 10% to around 16%).  A lot of this churn is in the first year of apprenticeship, where some estimates put the drop-out rate at around 50%.  The RAIS numbers are somewhat skewed – Alberta doesn’t even count the first year apprentices in their overall completion stats – which artificially inflates the numbers and makes the system appear far more successful than it is.

Awareness of apprenticeship has been successful at increasing the number of starts – but we can’t solve the skills shortage unless we ensure that apprentices complete the process and become journeypersons.

When apprentices drop out of the system, everyone loses – the provincial apprenticeship authority, the apprentice, the employer and the Canadian economy.  In particular, employers new to apprenticeship can easily be discouraged when they see high attrition rates, and decide that apprenticeship isn’t worth the effort – and that damages the entire apprenticeship system.

The Canadian Apprenticeship Forum ( ) has done research into the factors behind non-completion, and these factors can be grouped into 3 broad categories:

  1. Problems with the way employers manage apprentices and apprenticeship programs that leads to apprentices dropping out;
  2. Problems with the actual apprenticeship candidates and/or their work/life/economic situation that leads to them dropping out;
  3. Systemic issues related to the labour market, the cost and availability of technical training, etc.

The important take away from the research is this: EMPLOYERS HAVE RESPONSIBILITY IN ALL OF THESE FACTORS !

Apprentices cited lack of structure, perceived lack of progress in their training, and poor mentoring as major factors in their dissatisfaction with apprenticeship, and this led to their dropping out. Others indicated that after a bit of time as an apprentice they decided that the trade wasn’t what they expected and they moved on to another occupation.  I have a feeling that in many cases, this is just a less detailed way to restating the first set of factors.

Employers engaging in apprenticeship can’t be passive. They need to have clear plans on how the apprentice will be trained, need to ensure that the journeyperson(s) who will be teaching the apprentices are properly selected and trained in effective workplace learning and mentoring practices, and they need to ensure that the system is proactively monitored by management to make sure that apprentices are learning what they need to learn at an appropriate rate. Successful apprenticeship treats the apprentice as a learner and not an extra set of low-rent hands. Sure, not all jobs are enjoyable or fun, and apprentices will have to do their fair share of “crap jobs”, but if that’s all they are used for, or they are simply the jounreyperson’s “gopher”, then the odds of success are significantly diminished.

As far as apprentices who get started in the trade and then realize it isn’t what they expected it to be, I think employers need to share some of the blame there too; employers need to ensure they are recruiting the right people to be apprentices, and make sure they understand clearly what will be expected of them and what they’ll be doing as apprentices – BEFORE they sign on.

While Individual employers can’t do much about the overall economy, and they generally don’t decide on the way the technical training for apprenticeship is done, but they can  (and should) be more proactive around the systemic issues. While an individual employer may not be able to influence things on their own, there’s power in the collective, and employers need to be proactive through their industry associations, sector councils, provincial advisory committees for the trades, etc in order to minimize the impact of systemic issues on their apprentices.

Apprenticeship works. Apprenticeship is good for employers. But employers need to understand that bringing on an apprentice is a significant responsibility, and they need to have their ducks lined up to ensure that they (and the apprentices) get the maximum benefit from the program.  Doing so will increase the number of completions, and aid in putting a dent in the skills shortage.

Jeff Griffiths

Jeff Griffiths is a Certified Management Consultant and has been involved with consulting, training, and skills development for over 20 years.