On The Job Learning Transforms Indigenous Skilling Outcomes

Over the last 30 years in North America, the widening wage and income gap has disproportionately impacted traditionally underrepresented groups. In Canada, this has been particularly evident amongst Indigenous communities. Despite improvements in the way in which private investments compensate and even prioritize Indigenous involvement, there remains ample room for improvement.

Nationwide, Indigenous Peoples earn significantly less than non-Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps counterintuitively, the problem is worse in cities than in rural areas. Despite the economic activity of metro urban centres, we struggle to create integration pathways for Indigenous People to better interact with the city environment.

At the core of this problem is that workforce development often requires all rural populations – not just Indigenous Peoples – to leave their local communities to access training. For all of the digital transformation that progressed through the Covid-19 pandemic era, people across this country find themselves having few options other than to quit jobs, forego revenues, and leave their communities in order to receive additional career training. That needs to change.

Where the 1620’s Meets the 2020’s

The development of apprenticeships in North America as a learning model is traced back to the early 17th century. American colonies were supported by British apprentices who had been using the apprenticeship model since at least the mid 1500’s. The model favoured practical education rooted in progressive skills development, active mentorship, and valuable feedback. Mastery and artisanship was attained through a diligent and dedicated commitment on the part of the apprentice. But as technology and innovation transformed those early colonies into the vibrant and bustling cities and communities of today, some elements have seen limited true innovation.

For example, the country’s first university, established in the 1700’s in Nova Scotia, awarded degrees to its successful graduates based on the successful completion of a multiple choice exam. Three hundred years later, we rely on the very same approach to award credentials to learners. We need not list the dramatic changes in the human experience over the past three hundred years to understand that, perhaps, there’s a better, more modern, and more authentic way to create, improve, and measure human ability.

A construction apprentice checks a wooden plank for flaws.

On The Job Training and Youth Apprenticeship

Our work across Canada has uncovered some irrefutable benefits for apprenticeship and on-the-job training for Indigenous workers, while simultaneously uncovering shortcomings that need attention in order to amplify equity for all workers. Experiential learning and mentorship have long been associated with traditional approaches to learning in Indigenous communities, and so apprenticeship programs that provide quality supports, opportunities, and mentorship are meaningful ways in which to increase economic access and labour opportunities for Indigenous communities. We have seen this evidenced through our engagements across Canada.

One of the most impactful actions has been the move to competency-based education and training, supported by our evidence-based, legally-defensible assessment methodologies. This modicum of training focuses not on examinations and hours, but rather on skill and mastery. As such, an apprentice can progress through an apprenticeship program when they are able to regularly and consistently demonstrate a high skill level. If managed well, this becomes a powerful means by which skilled labour can be quickly deployed, managed, and progressed.

The competency-based model of training and education is just now gaining popularity around North America, but gained popularity in the United Kingdom, not in any small part due to the creation of the world’s first e-portfolio product, VALID-8, by a company called Vametric. This tool, which began simply as a repository of evidence of skills helped to transform the British economy by providing transparent, legally defensible, and auditable proof that skills had been developed, and a level of mastery attained. The product, widely in use, including with multiple build trades unions and construction associations in North America, has enabled equity by leaps and bounds for underrepresented groups, including Indigenous workers.

Assessment is Currently Assumption; That Must Change

What competency-based learning – and the tools like VALID-8 that support it – can enable is a more validated and relevant training curriculum. An important trait of a well-functioning competency-based training program (such as an apprenticeship) is the availability of relevant opportunities for skills development. Naturally, if you never have an opportunity to practice how to tie your shoes, then mastery will be very difficult to attain. As such, we have witnessed great opportunity for apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training to improve, simply by ensuring that the right apprentices get the right opportunity at the right time for skills development. This is difficult to execute manually and from memory alone, and third-party tools like VALID-8, which possess a track record of enabling high-quality on-the-job training, become significantly value-additive.

In the face of an ever-growing skills shortage in industries across the economy, we need to find dynamic and timely ways to ensure that training is meeting the needs of industry, and doing so in a way that is compliant and with health and safety in mind. We must move away from “assumption” as our primary assessment method, and move towards evidence, proof, and competency as a means to creating a more fair, more transparent, and more readily available labour force.