Don't leave the skilled trades out of Canada's innovation conversation

Originally featured in Policy Options 

Canada’s economic landscape is changing. To see how, one need look no further than the March 22 federal budget and follow the money. Big chunks of funding will be delivered to the likes of artificial intelligence (AI), clean tech, the digital economy and agri-food.

Missing from the budget, however, was any explicit mention of the skilled trades or apprentices or of the role they will play in Canada’s new innovation-centred economy. Despite the focus on skills and massive investments in infrastructure, building the knowledge and capacity of Canada’s trades people was largely overlooked.

As the Canadian government sets its sights on innovation through all that is high-tech, it is important to recognize that Canada’s skilled trades people, apprentices and the institutions they train at (particularly Canada’s leading institutes of technology, polytechnics and colleges) are already on board, operating at the forefront of technology. When the government is talking innovation (and building the skills for innovation), skilled trades people — and the apprentices who will be the trades people of the future — must be included in the conversation.

Technology’s impact on industry is undeniable and the trades are no exception. In a multidisciplinary world, increasingly dependent on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), that is especially true. To cope with technology’s impact, those in the skilled trades are adopting models of lifelong learning that merge the technical, the technological and the mechanical; the toolbox of today is brimming with technology and so are the classrooms in which apprentices train.

Take, for example, automotive service technicians. Today’s cars run on a complex mix of on-board computers and mechanical components. With the explosion in popularity of electric cars and the impending availability of autonomous vehicles, the knowledge and skills needed by tomorrow’s technicians will be even greater. Technicians will be part of multidisciplinary teams that can update a car’s software over Wifi, understand car-to-car wireless communication and integration into the Internet of Things, repair on-board hardware and care for the mechanical functionality of hybrid, electric and combustible engines.

To keep pace and ensure the success of apprentices, classrooms are as innovative as the environments in which they will operate. Apprentices are learning to diagnose engine problems using iOS-based applications, familiarizing themselves with work in a variety of environments through the use of simulators, using virtual and augmented reality to build valuable “real world” experience and taking courses delivered online through blended learning to allow for theory-based knowledge to be transferred while on remote job sites.

The skilled trades of today require a whole new set of skills on top of those passed down from their mentors. The ability to utilize and work alongside an array of technologies is paramount to success. When a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technician goes out on a job, she or he needs to be able to diagnose issues with a 10-year-old furnace or a brand new one, and everything in between. Further, as lines between specializations blur and technological complexity increases, skilled trades people become an indispensable asset to multidisciplinary teams and must learn to function in them.

As the world becomes more connected, higher value is placed on STEM-related knowledge. As Canada’s economy pivots to one that is innovation-centric, we must all recognize that skilled trades people and apprentices play a significant role in Canada’s innovation landscape.

There is no monopoly on innovation — it includes the apprentice as much as it includes the app.

Co-written by Nobina Robinson and Sarah Watts-Rynard 

Click here to read the article in Policy Options