Jobs for the next generation

by Terence MacNamee

Journalist Chuck Chiang, writing in the Vancouver Sun, has echoed Canadian Employment minister Jason Kenney’s recent appeal to immigrant parents there to let their children go into the trades.

The background to this story is that provinces like British Columbia are trying to make up in a hurry for the shortfall they have in skilled and technical trades. They need these trades to support industry, whereas there are more universities than ever, churning out graduates who find it hard to get a job.

Chiang writes that Asian parents (like his own) want their youngsters to go to university because of the social status involved. Quite true. But when he says “that was Asia, this is Canada”, he is going a bit too far. In fact, these parents have only adopted the attitude prevalent throughout the English-speaking world that trades – occupations where you may be skilled, but you probably get your hands dirty – are not suitable occupations for the respectable middle classes. It comes from the old idea in England of the “gentleman” who didn’t do anything so prosaic as to work for a living, and certainly had no manual skills.

North America is more commercial and workmanlike and less class-ridden than England, but the prejudice against trades persists. The middle classes have “white-collar” jobs. “Blue-collar” jobs are for the working class. Joining the middle class requires working at a white collar job – and sending your youngsters to university.

How did places in North America get by without skilled workmen all these years? The answer is simple: it imported them. In B.C., for example, just about all the skilled tradesmen that you dealt with were imported, often from the German-speaking world.

Now the interesting thing is that the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) have never had the idea of the cultivated, amateurish gentleman like in England. To be sure, they produced very literate types of people, but also very technical types. These latter were needed for German industry. The educational system was divided up to meet all these needs. Technical colleges were built up alongside traditional universities and were second to none. Most importantly, there was the system of apprenticeship.

Except for those going to Gymnasium (the academic stream of secondary school, usually lasting till the age of 20), young people have been directed early on into apprenticeships for trade and technical occupations. The apprenticeship gets them into the world of work in a supervised mode. They learn not only how to do the job but also how to function in the world of work. The result is a steady supply of skilled technicians for industry and indeed for all the machinery on which everyday life now depends. Another result is low youth unemployment in places like Switzerland, where I live. Here you get a sense that society really believes in full employment, and doesn’t just shrug its shoulders if young people find it hard to get a job.

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