Jeff Walker

jeff.walker19@ontariotechu.net
Fanshawe College

Abstract

Many stakeholders in Canada’s apprenticeship framework have identified poor mentorship as a significant barrier to skilled-trades training, apprenticeship completion, and certification of journeypersons in the past decade. Assertions that poor mentorship from journeypersons and employers is founded in subpar essential skills of Canada’s apprentices is widely reported in the literature, but other operational issues also exist, such as departmentalization, sub-contracting, and prioritizing lean quality initiatives over training opportunities (Wren, 2008; Stein, 2019), which interfere with the opportunities for meaningful face-to-face training. To address this issue, mobile job training apps are deployed commercially to record expert knowledge in the face of increasing attrition due to retirement, but apprentices may benefit from participating in documenting and reviewing app content. Two recommendations for using job training apps for apprenticeship is included.

Keywords

Apprenticeship Training, Essential Skills, Mentorship, Job Training Apps

Introduction

For centuries in North America and predating medieval Europe, the apprenticeship training model has been used as means to pass on vital occupational skills from a knowledgeable master (or journeyperson), to eager apprentices in exchange for labour and other compensations (Munck et al., 2007). For most of its history, however, the hands-on process of training apprentices has been onerous, and the act of training minimized or avoided as much as possible. Unfortunately, the reluctance to train skilled-trade apprentices persists in modern day work environments (Wren, 2008) and, in some cases, for similar reasons to medieval apprenticeships: training is still burdensome, time-consuming, and masters of a technical skill are not necessarily equipped with the right essential skills for mentorship (Lopata et al., 2015).

Apprentices, too, are struggling to learn in the current skilled-trades landscape. Apprentices in Wren’s (2008) intergenerational study of millwrights in Ontario report that, in some cases, there is no mentor from whom to learn when they are the only maintenance team member working during a night shift, which raises concerns for training ethics but also safety. Wren (2008) identifies other operational issues related to apprenticeship training in Ontario which prevent apprentices from learning technical trade skills, such as departmentalization and frequent sub-contracting, but others have hypothesized that apprentices, like their mentors, are lacking in essential soft skills that are necessary to learn in the traditional apprenticeship model (Clark & Jurmain, 2014; Lopata et al., 2015).

To close the communication gap between mentor and mentee, tech companies like Dozuki (Dozuki, 2022) and Invaware (Invaware, 2022) are creating job training apps which document the processes required to complete a particular operation. Learners can interact with the content on the app and replicate what they perceive to be the objective. In the absence of face-to-face knowledge transfer between a journeyperson and their apprentices, anxious companies are turning to these training apps in an attempt to capture that knowledge before their most knowledgeable experts retire (Dozuki, 2022) which, according to news media, approximately thirty percent of trades people in Canada are expecting to do in the next ten years (“Canada”, 2021; Deveau, 2013).

The following paper will explore the recent literature about mentorship and essential skills in apprenticeship training in a Canadian context. An introduction to job training apps for skilled-trades is provided as are considerations for their use as an apprenticeship training tool.

Background Context

As reported by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum [CAF] (2007), formalizing what essential skills are required for skilled-trades work in Canada began in the 1990s with identifying nine fundamental skills (Writing, Reading Text, Numeracy, Continuous Learning, Document Use, Oral Communication, Thinking Skills, Working with Others, and Computer Use) which allow an individual to participate fully in the workforce. Today, the Government of Canada (2022) still adheres to their initial nine fundamental skills with some changes. Unless otherwise specified, for the purpose of this paper, essential skills will refer to the current acknowledged essential skills: Writing, Numeracy, Communication, Creativity and Innovation, Problem Solving, Reading, Digital, Collaboration, and Adaptability.

Apprentices and Essential Skills

Canadian apprentices lacking essential skills for success in the trades is a concern echoed by many stakeholders in the apprenticeship system. A Canadian Apprenticeship Forum [CAF] (2010) survey found that ten percent of employers that hired skilled-trades journeypersons would not hire an apprentice due to “too many essential skills issues” (p. 21). Instructors at trade schools and colleges in Canada also believe that poor essential skills are a prominent cause of apprenticeship attrition (Stewart, 2009; Evetts & Fownes, 2001). Their claims were somewhat substantiated by Clark and Jurmain (2014) whose pilot project (n=106) of an online essential skills assessment tool revealed that “fully one-fifth did not meet the minimum skill levels in reading and document use and an even larger group did not meet some of the minimum skill levels in math” (p. 18).

Conversely, one study conducted by Coe (2013) found that low essential skills levels had a negligible impact on whether or not an apprentice would be able to learn the required skills to complete an apprenticeship. In examining factors which impacted apprenticeship completion rates in Canada, Coe (2013) used education requirements to begin an apprenticeship as a proxy for literacy and essential skill levels. He found that lower education requirements did not lead to decreased completions, but rather that individuals with higher levels of education (and better essential skills) were negatively impacting completion rates due to leaving the field for other career opportunities.

Journeypersons and Mentorship Skills

Over time, as apprentices become journeypersons in their respective trades, they become mentors to the next generation of apprentices that are hired by the company, union, or other project lead. While Lopata et al. (2015) found that employers, journeypersons, and apprentices all identify poor mentoring as a moderate barrier to training and apprenticeship completion, the same groups also identify that mentorship is time consuming and burdensome. Poor mentorship can lead to general anxiety and low confidence in all skills and abilities, as it did with the apprentices in Wren’s (2008) intergenerational study. It is not an unreasonable conclusion draw that apprentices who struggle with essential skills will also be poor mentors to other apprentices.

Improving mentorship skills in journeypersons in a traditional sense will require a significant investment in skills upgrading, which is available in some Provinces (Lopata et al., 2015). However, it may be that employers are more concerned with reducing overhead expenses than with apprenticeship progression. Stein (2019) notes that many lean quality initiatives such as 5S prioritizes waste reduction over learning opportunities for apprentices. Wren (2008) identifies subcontracting tasks such as new equipment installations as being disruptive to apprenticeship training and mentoring opportunities. Fourteen percent of employers that hire skilled-trades journeypersons say that training apprentices takes up too much of a journeyperson’s time (CAF, 2010). It appears that as much as apprenticeship stakeholders identify poor mentorship as a barrier to training, other aspects of business operations are taking precedent over education.

One other possibility which may improve mentorship skills in journeypersons is to align mentorship skills with quality initiatives which may pay more direct dividends to the company.

The Rise of Job Training Apps

Digitizing paper-based instruction manuals and disrupting the traditional apprenticeship training process through augmented reality (AR) has been a realizable goal since the early 1990’s (Feiner et al., 1993). Since then, researchers have utilized advancements in technology to overcome various barriers and making AR ever more user-friendly with increasingly complex options such as speech interactive devices, and eye tracking software (De Crescenzio et al., 2011; Goose et al., 2003; Park et al., 2008). As technology has further improved, Zhu et al.’s (2013) pilot project (n=8) has demonstrated preference for AR apps for replacing traditional training methods.

Many mobile and AR enhanced applications are commercially available and are replacing paper-based documentations and training modules. Wiens (2012) reports that products like Dozuki and Invaware provide mobile, multimedia enhanced, technical documentation that allows its users to edit and create content. More importantly than the technologically enhanced features of the app though, is that the creation of the media documentation is designed to be a social process which provides the occasion to discuss and share ideas amongst a team. That social process could be a new mentorship occasion for an apprentice with minimum disruption to normal activities in the working environment.

Best Practice for Application

Digitizing work instructions and incorporating multimedia is not a magic cure for poor mentorship or essential skills; however, incorporating job training apps into an environment were apprenticeship training is offered can facilitate better communication so learning may take place. The following two considerations should be addressed when implementing job training apps.

Embed the App in Day-to-Day Operations

Documentation of jobs and records are an important learning resource in the skilled trades, especially if mentorship is challenging due to poor communication skills or if other operational barriers interfere with training. Just as Wren (2008) described the changes in styles of apprenticeship training in recent decades, documentation must also evolve to respond to different users’ needs (Wiens, 2012). By enhancing traditional documentation methods with editable prompts, multimedia and even AR, the requirement for strong communication skills or advanced literacy skills to read through job manuals are lessened.

Make it Social!

Wiens (2012) claims that job training apps were developed with community in mind and to be inherently social in a way that a training manual and other reference documentation is not – that communication facilitated via an app, both synchronous and asynchronous, would lead to benefits and efficiencies. Although, as demonstrated by Wren (2008) and Stein (2019), changes in technology and business operations have removed meaningful occasions for face-to-face mentorship, communication facilitated by job training apps can repair the fractured network of knowledge dissemination if apprentices are able to contribute to the documentation process on the app. By making the documentation process a team activity, apprentices are “potential reformers of practice,” (Sfard, 1998) and not only learn by participating, but also offer their feedback on what information is required on the app as a new user.

Conclusion

This paper explores the potential for job training apps to address mentorship issues within the Canadian apprenticeship system. Employers, instructors, apprentices and journeypersons all identify strong mentorship skills as key to an apprentice learning technical skills required of their chosen trade. There are operational barriers to successful mentorship, however, poor essential skills on behalf of Canadian apprentices is more often cited as a root cause of the problem (Clark & Jurmain, 2014). Employers choosing to transition to job training apps should integrate their use as part of daily operations as much as possible and frequently invite apprentices’ insight as the communication, synchronous or asynchronous, is valuable dialogue for learning.

References

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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2022 by Jeff Walker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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