"Surprisingly enough, when you have a change in the economy (a downturn) apprentices want to come to school because there may be less work - with construction projects being put on hold," says Brian Moukperian, dean of apprentices at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary, which offers 33 apprenticeship programs as well as certificate, diploma and applied degree programs.
"When that economy turns around it means there will be more work and more apprentices back in the system."
Preliminary enrolment figures indicate SAIT is expecting about 11,600 apprentices in its system for the 2009-2010 academic year, slightly less than the 11,800 now enrolled in the 2008-2009 term, although those predictions could rise.
Those numbers are akin to those at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton, the largest apprenticeship trainer in Canada with 35 apprenticeship trades. NAIT trains 17 percent of Canada's apprentices and half of Alberta's apprentices. NAIT has just over 15,000 trades and apprentices registered for 2008-2009, and 15,816 for the 2009-2010 year.
"We were only capable of offering a little over 15,000 seats (this term) - we were maxed out," says Dave Roberts, NAIT's co-ordinating dean of apprenticeship.
Strong numbers are also expected at British Columbia's largest apprentice school, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Burnaby.
"We're doing our planning for next year and there will be some new programs coming out around residential heating technician and some specific programming targeted at reinforcing steel," says Wayne Hand, acting dean for BCIT's school of construction and the environment.
"And we still have an increasing demand for electrical apprentices, so we're cautiously forecasting a slight increase."
BCIT has 5,608 apprentices for the 2008-2009 term, plus an additional 3,190 foundation (entry-level trades training) and vocational students.
"In some of our trades we've had a pretty solid wait list," adds Hand.
BCIT, NAIT and SAIT officials all agree that it's too early to tell what the current global economic downturn will mean for enrolment after the 2009-2010 classes are completed.
"We're just cautious about the future. It's definitely, 'Let's see what happens by spring,' " says Hand.
SAIT's Moukperian notes that today's training numbers reflect last year's job market. "We're always delivering today's training for the on-the-job training that took place last year," he says. "Today's apprentice who is in school now signed up in January.
Today, we're busy because of the economy in January or last October."
Moukperian adds while demand in construction due to the slowdown may decrease, it could rise in other areas.
"People will hold onto cars longer, they'll have them serviced more often," says Moukperian. "So that means my automotive programs will be busy. " There are about 34,000 people enrolled in apprenticeship programs this year in B.C., and 71,000 in Alberta.
Meanwhile, NAIT and SAIT continue to move forward with expansion plans. SAIT plans to break ground next year on a 600,000-sq.-ft. trades and technology complex in Calgary that is expected to open up another 3,600 new training spaces to engage 8,100 more students each year in hands-on, career-oriented training.
NAIT is set to expand its welding facility at its Souch campus in Edmonton, adding 900 seats per year to the 1,725 apprentices it can turn out annually. Construction is expected to start this summer.