Skilled trades training in 2021: A polytechnic approach

Providing a hands-on, industry-aligned education has long been a priority for Canada’s polytechnics.  Institutions are continually re-evaluating their approaches to training and course delivery, responding to industry demand and learner preferences.  At the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), this evolution has reached skilled trades programming – one of the most traditional learning pathways on offer.  The institution recently introduced a fast-track pathway to apprenticeship that includes a focus on employability skills identified by industry as critical.

Polytechnics Canada sat down with NAIT’s Dean of Skilled Trades, Matthew Lindberg, to discuss what’s changed.

Polytechnics Canada: The School of Skilled Trades has always emphasized applied, hands-on learning.  In 2020, you had to pivot to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.  What did that look like?

Matthew Lindberg: COVID-19 had a significant impact on the way we deliver our apprenticeship education and on how our students have had to learn.  The hands-on learning that occurs in our shops and labs is essential to student success and this continued throughout the pandemic, but it looked different.  We have smaller cohorts in our shops and labs to support social distancing and we have increased safety protocols, including masks and face shields where social distancing cannot be maintained.  The theory components of our programming have been delivered virtually, which has been a monumental shift for our faculty and students.  In the summer of 2020, we spent a significant amount of time with faculty across NAIT to support them as they transitioned to virtual delivery.  Many misconceptions were dismantled as we rolled out the blended delivery of our programming.

PC: What will the Fall 2021 semester look like for skilled trades training?  How much learning will be done in person?  What will continue to be delivered remotely? 

ML: As many Canadians know, COVID-19 is still impacting Alberta in significant ways.  Our fall semester, which includes two apprenticeship intakes for most programs, will continue with blended delivery.  Essential activities will be delivered safely on campus and the theory components online. This looks different for each of our programs, with some students on campus for two or three days a week and others coming to campus only one day each week.  Just recently, NAIT (along with eight other post-secondary institutions in Alberta) introduced a vaccine mandate that will require the whole community to be fully vaccinated to attend any on-campus, in-person activity after November 8, 2021.  This effort will help support the safe return of a vibrant campus community as soon as possible.

PC: Are there aspects of the hybrid approach you see being used moving forward?  What elements, if any, work better for students and faculty? 

ML: There will absolutely be a continuation of our blended and hybrid approach after the pandemic.  We know many students have appreciated the flexibility, especially those who travel long distances to attend or have family obligations.  The ability to participate in their learning while having flexibility to care for loved ones has definite benefits.  More than 50 per cent of students attending in the 2020/2021 academic year preferred the blended approach.  While we recognize this isn’t ideal for all students and face-to-face options are important, we expect an increased demand for blended delivery even after the pandemic ends.  Our next challenge will be finding the right mix for students.

PC: NAIT has established some new trades pathways that allow students to study a trade prior to registering as an apprentice.  What made you decide to offer this option? 

ML: On top of existing diploma offerings, we were excited to launch four new trades diplomas this fall in electrical, plumbing, automotive and welding, all of which were full despite a shortened recruitment timeline.  The level of interest highlights the need for this type of programming, providing a pathway to apprenticeship and other post-secondary credentials.  These diplomas also address the unique needs of underrepresented and marginalized groups, who often struggle to enter apprenticeship through traditional pathways.  Graduates from these programs will have the opportunity to have all periods of apprenticeship training recognized as completed, with only on-the-job hours required to meet journeyperson status.  This also means we can open a pathway to apprenticeship for international students for the first time.

PC: There have been significant drops in apprenticeship registrations over the past few years.  What challenges are you seeing among students, faculty and skilled trades employers?  Has the last year introduced new or different challenges to the equation?

ML: Alberta has been hit hard by the downturn in the oil and gas sector.  NAIT’s apprenticeship seats have declined by more than a third, from over 15,000 in 2015 to just over 9,200 this academic year.  The decline also meant we lost many talented and passionate staff, and saw many apprentices and journeypersons move out of province or transition to different careers.  However, I would say that the pandemic has highlighted the resiliency and strength of our skilled trades professionals.  We know that Alberta will have to diversify its economy and we’re confident that our apprentices will be well prepared for the challenges and opportunities that will come from that diversification.

PC: Where do you see additional opportunities to innovate in the delivery of skilled trades training? 

ML: Technology continues to drive innovative practices in all skilled trades.  Our students are immersing themselves in this tech and becoming savvier and more confident in the tech world.  We also know that many of our students bring an exceptional understanding of the skills and concepts critical in industry.  I’m excited to explore ways to recognize those skills so their time at NAIT can be focused on the areas where they need to grow.

Learn more about the skilled trades training pathways offered at NAIT.

About the Authors

Matthew Lindberg, Dean, School of Skilled Trades, NAIT

Starting at NAIT 15 years ago as an instructor in the plumbing and gas-fitting apprenticeship programs, Matthew has been heavily involved in Skills Alberta and Skills Canada, competing in the 1999 provincial and national competitions, and serving as an expert on the world skills stage throughout his career. He has also held several senior roles including pipe trades program chair (2012-2016) and associate dean academic (2016-2020). Matthew brings substantial experience to his role at Dean of Skilled Trades, including a year serving as the interim dean, where where his exceptional leadership helped navigate trades education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monika Watten

At the time of publication, Monika Watten was a Communications Officer at Polytechnics Canada.