Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Trades and Aides: The Gendering of Vocational Education in Rural Alberta

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Trades and Aides: The Gendering of Vocational Education in Rural Alberta

Article excerpt

Introduction

Youth today face longer and more complex transitions to adulthood, due in part to the greater need for postsecondary credentials for labor market entry (Taylor, 2007). Canada has one of the highest rates of university graduation among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, but it has lagged in attracting youth to skilled trades (Molgat, Deschenaux, & LeBlanc, 2011). This article examines two vocational education programs for high school youth in Alberta, Canada. Coordinated by a foundation that focuses on workplace learning opportunities for young people, each program was designed to engage youth in high-demand occupational sectors: skilled trades and health sciences.

However, the differences between these sectors form the basis for our discussion. First, the occupational trajectories are very different. Trades-based occupations, promoted through Alberta's High School Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP), involve mostly on-the-job training. The most common RAP trades include welder, heavy equipment technician, auto services technician, electrician and welder; the only female-dominated trade is hairdresser. Trades pay well and, as this study illustrates, offer ample possibilities for career mobility. Healthcare occupations tend to require more initial formal education and are characterized by rigid boundaries between specific roles in healthcare facilities. Second, the sectors under scrutiny are highly gendered. Whereas trades tend to attract more males, healthcare professions attract more females. The programs described here appear to reinforce gendered education and training by not challenging gendered norms.

Combining a gender analysis informed by Lave and Wenger's (1991) theorizing of apprenticeship in "communities of practice" (Paechter, 2003) and Fuller and Unwin's (2006) analysis of expansive and restrictive workplace training contexts, we examine how early life experiences and workplace affordances intersect to produce gendered career trajectories. The closing section of this article briefly considers policy implications.

Background and Conceptual Influences

Our study occurs in the context of Alberta, a Canadian province with labor market participation patterns that are heavily influenced by the oil and gas sector. Miller (2004) characterizes this sector as "powerfully masculine" in its culture. Below average postsecondary education rates for young men have been attributed in part to the ready availability of high-paying work as laborers in this sector (Alberta Advanced Education, 2005). In contrast, the healthcare sector is dominated by female workers in a hierarchy of occupations ranging from personal care assistant and healthcare aide to physicians, surgeons, and other highly educated professionals (Freidson, 1990). Unstable funding, because of the boom-bust oil economy, and escalating healthcare costs create a workforce characterized both by pressing shortages, particularly in rural areas, and by precarious employment, as workers within the system are constantly subject to cost-cutting measures (Ostry & Speigel, 2004).

The two programs contrasted in this study were both brokered by an industry-driven public-private foundation in Alberta called Transitions.1 Transitions promotes schoolbased programs for high school students across the province in areas of perceived labor market demand by matching interested youth with work experience placements. One program encourages youth to enroll in the high school Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP), while the other was a pilot program offering Health Care Aide (HCA) training for senior high school students. Rural youth were the focus of both our case studies, but most students in RAP are male while most students in HCA are female.

Most Canadian provinces support a range of secondary school initiatives intended to facilitate youth transitions. Such programs are seen as valuable because they provide a direction and sense of purpose for youth. …

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