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Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Does the ‘Nudge Theory’ apply to trades and apprenticeship?

Lindsay Langill
Industry Perspectives Op-Ed: Does the ‘Nudge Theory’ apply to trades and apprenticeship?

Recently I reacquainted myself with the research report It Pays to Hire an Apprentice (2009), published by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.

The report, while 13 years removed from today, still reads as if it were a recent study.

Several key findings resonated as I read the report, yet it was one bold statement that held my interest as driving towards that never-ending constant – how little is known about trades and apprenticeship. Within the report, employers purported “that they would be willing to hire an apprentice, except that there were few or no apprentices applying to their organization.” 

While there can be a plethora of valid reasons as to why our youth are not applying for apprenticeship positions could it be that they lack the understanding of what trades and apprenticeship are?

Each winter semester I teach a cohort of fourth year students in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia.

These students are in their final year of studies prior to graduating with a bachelor of education degree and moving on to teach in the British Columbia K-12 school system.

Majoring in technology education, these young educators will embark upon teaching students in areas of carpentry, mechanics and other curricular areas where problem solving strategies occur through the application of materials and tools.

While the occasional student in these classes may have a Red Seal, the majority have limited knowledge about the craft system – one of the oldest “knowledge transfer” systems known to humankind.

This spring, I interviewed several young construction labourers who were working for various companies on a large industrial project.

The question asked of each was: “Do you know about apprenticeship and what trades are currently supporting the project you are working on?”

There was a common theme found in their answers. While some could delineate between an electrician and a heavy-duty mechanic, none knew what an industrial mechanic did, nor the separation in skills between a bridgeman/piledriver and a carpenter.

These young labourers enjoyed the world of construction, the environment, camaraderie and challenge, yet did not know how to move into a career within the trades, or even more discerning the existing differences between trades.

The suggestion of my earlier hypothesis “not applying for an apprenticeship position due to lack of knowledge of the trades” may have some merit.

Over the past few years, governments have invested more money toward providing young adults with an awareness of trades and apprenticeship than has ever occurred previously.

Innovative programs in K-12 such as “Try a Trade.” to professional development events for high school career counsellors, trades have gained a recent voice from a new platform.

With dual-credit programs such as “Youth Training in Trades” where high schools and colleges have partnered to provide Level One trades curriculum to “Youth Working in Trades,” the young high school student is provided with a solid understanding of the trade’s pathway. Yet youth today have limited knowledge of trades and apprenticeship.

Within behavioural sciences, a theory exists called the “Nudge Theory.”  

Existing since 1995, this theory was formally brought to the forefront in 2008 when Thaler and Sunstein authored the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

The authors referred to the influencing of behaviour without coercion as “libertarian paternalism.”

This is the idea suggesting it is both possible and legitimate to affect behaviour while respecting freedom of choice.

An example of such a nudge would be switching the placement of junk food in a store so that fruit and other healthy options are located next to the cash register, while junk food is relocated to another part of the store.

Is it possible this same approach could be used with young adults to open their minds towards considering a trade as being a viable career option for them?

Consider the earlier example of the young labourers who were working on the construction project alongside journeypeople yet still not understanding how to move forward into a trade.

One young lady interviewed commented that “she felt you had to be part of a union before you could get into the trades.”

All that may be required of these young adults is a nudge.

The question is where and from whom does the nudge come from? It is quite possible that the nudge could come from the K-12 career counsellor for those who are in the K-12 system, or an insightful teacher.

For young adults who are in the work force, the nudge could originate from another apprentice or a journeyperson, possibly even a construction association representative.

Helping people gain a better future should be a goal that we all aspire to, and a little nudge may be all that is needed.

Lindsay Langill is director of people and strategy with Pacific Pile and Marine Ltd. He holds his Red Seal Certificate of Qualification as a welder and industrial mechanic, along with a Certificate of Qualification as a 4th class Power Engineer. He completed his bachelor and master’s degree at UBC and his doctorate at the University of Calgary. He is an adjunct professor at UBC in the Faculty of Education. Send Industry Perspectives comments and column ideas to


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