Learning a skilled occupation during the COVID-19 crisis

  • Facebook
  • Twitter


Published May 18, 2020


By Annie Dubeau and Camille Jutras-Dupont of the Groupe de recherche sur l’enseignement, l’apprentissage et la transition en formation professionnelle (GREAT-FP), and by Sylvie Chartrand of the Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys.

Réseau réussite Montréal is seeking researchers studying various aspects of school perseverance as it relates to the current health crisis. We thank them for contributing to our special section on COVID-19 and educational success.

About vocational training | Pandemic-related challenges | All hands on deck | About the authors | References

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a dire need for healthcare staff such as orderlies and auxiliary nurses. Like many other essential jobs, learning these two occupations happens through secondary-school level vocational training. What is vocational training, and what are the issues faced by students and their instructors during the pandemic? This article provides an overview of this type of teaching and of pandemic-related issues in both Greater Montreal and elsewhere in Québec.


The purpose of vocational training (VT) is to train future workers by providing instruction that prepares them for a specialized occupation in a wide variety of fields.

During the 2017–2018 school year, over 135,000 people (Men: 53%) were registered in a VT program. Most (75%) of them were enrolled in a program that would lead to a vocational studies diploma (DEP).1 (Databank of Official Statistics on Québec, 2020).

In Québec, training in these occupations (e.g., hairdresser, mechanic, auxiliary nurse) is done at vocational training centres by way of hands-on learning punctuated by short periods of theory (Compétences Québec, 2020; Doray, Ménard, and Adouane, 2008; Misiorowska et al., 2019). To ensure that training is appropriate for the desired trade (Hart, 2015), most VT programs include practicums in the workplace (inforoutefpt.org; Beauchesne and Bousquet, 2008).

Upon completion of all such programs, offered throughout Québec, the student earns one of several professional qualifications (DEP, ASP, and AEP 1) that are recognized by the province and highly sought-after by employers, especially considering current and future labour needs. (Fortin, 2018; emploidavenir.gouv.qc.ca).

Engaging in vocational studies can be considerably beneficial for young Quebecers. For one, VT is open to all students aged 16 and up, and the prerequisites, which vary depending on program, are basic secondary 3, 4, and 5 courses, an attestation of educational equivalence, or the functional prerequisites required by the program (maviemonmetier.ca). Vocational training is thus more accessible than the technical education offered at the CEGEP level, giving more students an opportunity to learn skilled occupations. Moreover, unlike general high school education, VT lets students enter the job market immediately upon completion of a relatively short (600 to 1,800 hours) training program focused directly on learning a specialized skill. (Masdonati, Fournier and Pinault, 2015; Solar-Pelletier, 2016).

Every year, these programs train thousands of workers for essential, specialized jobs, so a stoppage in training, such as the one experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a major concern.



Students enrolled in VT programs were already working before the COVID-19 situation and were thus on the front lines of supporting the Québec population.

In this regard, the preliminary results of a survey we conducted from March 30 to May 13, 2020 revealed that these students worked to support themselves and their families in jobs such as orderly, grocery store clerk, fast-food clerk, and pharmacy technical assistant. These jobs are in sectors that the Québec government has deemed essential and that allow Quebecers to feed and care for themselves.

Various studies show that VT students—three-quarters of whom are aged 20 or older and have an average age of 26 (Masdonati et al., 2015)—were facing various challenges such as financial difficulties and problems balancing studies with work and family life even before the pandemic (Dubeau, Beaulieu, Bélanger, and Jutras-Dupont, 2020; Beaucher, Coulombe, Gagnon, Maltais, Breton, Doucet, Murphy, Gagné, Brisson, and Gilbert, 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these challenges.

Moreover, some students were not able to continue their programs due to family commitments brought about by the continued closure of elementary schools in Greater Montreal and high schools throughout Québec. And indeed, when it was even possible, distance learning posed an even greater challenge for these parents/students.


In Greater Montreal and elsewhere in Québec, certain VT programs that lent themselves well to online or distance learning (e.g., secretarial or accounting programs) continued during the lockdown, and indeed some of them were already offered online or at a distance.

For all programs, the shift to distance learning has required numerous adjustments because didactics for online learning are different than for in-class learning. Pedagogical advisers have been urgently working to develop guidelines and indicators to support teachers and students through this change.

However, it is important to note that a significant number of students do not currently have the tools needed to take classes online (computer, specialized applications, internet access, etc.) or do not know how to use these technologies for training purposes.


The hands-on nature of vocational training means that many VT programs or skills are difficult if not impossible to adapt for distance learning. For instance, this is the case for truck driving, installing an engine for apprentice mechanics, or learning hair cutting techniques, where virtual simulations alone are not sufficient to properly develop skills.

In certain cases, the lack of hands-on training can even become an issue of student safety. Consider, for example, programs that teach welding, dynamiting, or steel working, in which health and safety are intrinsic to the trade.


Since the gradual resumption of instruction in teaching centers, staff have been working hard to reorganize training schedules so that students can make up classes missed during the lockdown. The resumption of in-person teaching has meant that the previously suspended hands-on training and evaluations can continue.

However, social distancing measures have affected the organization of vocation training in myriad ways, such as:

  • Reduced student-teacher ratios that require more teachers or more time to train the same number of students.
  • Companies not being able to take on interns, preventing students from completing their training.
  • Aspects of training that cannot be covered because, with teaching clinics, stores, and restaurants still closed, students cannot practice with other people.

Though it is too early to make any firm pronouncements about the long-term impacts of the pandemic on VT students, certain consequences are foreseeable. For instance, many students face delayed graduation.

Students nearing the end of their studies, where completing an internship or practicum represents the last stage of their training, could face a major obstacle. Because many companies have had to slow down or halt production due to the pandemic, completing this part of their studies is likely to be delayed.

Students in certain areas, especially food services and business, who managed to complete their training before or during the pandemic, face another obstacle, since Québec’s current high rate of unemployment is likely to reduce their chances of finding work in their fields.

Some people therefore risk ending up in vulnerable situations, especially in Montreal, where it is harder to find a good job without a diploma.

Moreover, the pandemic is likely to affect the offer of vocational training, which is sensitive to labour market indicators. And while this is the case for sectors experiencing slowdowns, it is also true of sectors that are currently in high demand, such as health. Unfortunately, vocational training centres have limited attendance capacities, so the ability to train people in these areas in response to demand presents significant challenges (e.g., number of teachers, instruction spaces, available training slots).


The vocational training network is full of creative, resilient, and inventive people who are working hard to get VT programs back up and running. The results of the survey we conducted and our discussions with our partners at vocational training centres indicate that all hands are on deck in preparation for the lifting of the lockdown and the resumption of classes. Students intend to continue their training, and staff on the ground will be doing everything they can to support them through the significant challenges caused by the health emergency still in effect in Québec. But the return is not being taken lightly, and the health and safety of all involved, which has always been central to the vocational training sector, will be even more of a focus now.

The true strength and importance of vocational training, the occupations involved, and the professionals who work in them must be recognized. These women and men, the product of vocational training, have been a backbone of society during the pandemic, which is why it is vital that this educational network be given the means to overcome this situation and face the future.

The unique characteristics, specificities, and pedagogical system of vocational training make it an educational system in its own right that is too often overlooked. Its societal mission, aimed at training and qualifying a labour force, is too important for it to be assimilated into measures and parameters for elementary and high school teaching. Our current collective experience and the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 during the coming school year should spur us to work with stakeholders to think about how we can offer measures that are targeted and adapted to the multifaceted realities faced by vocational training centres. To this end, the vocational training research group GREAT-FP (Groupe de recherche sur l’enseignement, l’apprentissage et la transition en formation professionnelle) is seeking to develop various resources and involve students in UQAM’s vocational and technical education bachelor’s program in implementing strategies aimed at helping VT students graduate. Because these Quebecers, whose services are so important, deserve training and consideration worthy of their true value.


Annie Dubeau, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of specialized education and training, Université du Québec à Montréal
Director of bachelor’s programs in vocational and technical training
Groupe de recherche sur l’enseignement, l’apprentissage et la transition en formation professionnelle (GREAT-FP)
Regular member of the Observatoire de la formation professionnelle du Québec

Camille Jutras-Dupont, M.A.
Doctoral candidate, Université du Québec à Montréal
Remedial teacher in vocational training
Groupe de recherche sur l’enseignement, l’apprentissage et la transition en formation professionnelle (GREAT-FP)



Sylvie Chartrand
Director, vocational and diversified training
Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys




Stay informed about new content added to our Determinants and the Pandemic series. -> Sign up for our newsletter.



[1] DEP: Vocational studies diploma (diplôme d’études professionnelles) ASP: Professional specialization attestation (attestation de spécialisation professionnelle), AEP: Professional studies attestation (attestation d’études professionnelles)


Banque de données des statistiques officielles sur le Québec (2020). Effectif scolaire de la formation professionnelle, selon diverses variables, années scolaires 2005-2006 à 2017-2018, Québec [Table]. Downloaded at: http://www.bdso.gouv.qc.ca/pls/ken/ken213_afich_tabl.page_tabl?p_iden_tran=REPER5UDY 0842931841269291rmyD&p_lang=1&p_m_o=MEES&p_id_raprt=3415

Beaucher, C., S. Coulombe, C. Gagnon, D. Maltais, S. Breton, M. Doucet, C. Murphy, A. Gagné, J. Brisson, S. Gilbert. (May 2019). “Portrait des difficultés des élèves à besoins particuliers et pistes d’accompagnement favorisant leur persévérance et réussite en formation professionnelle.” Seminar Déterminants de la motivation scolaire: du primaire à l’enseignement supérieur, ACFAS, Gatineau.

Beauchesne, L., and J. C. Bousquet, (2008). De l’école vers le marché du travail – Analyse des trajectoires des élèves selon leur cheminement scolaire et leur insertion sur le marché du travail: research report.

Compétences Québec (2020). Programs and training. In Service régional d’admission en formation professionnelle. Downloaded from https://www.srafp.com/programmes.aspx?sanction=5&autrespart=6

Dubeau, A., M. Beaulieu, F.-A. Bélanger, and C. Jutras-Dupont. “Consommation et motivation scolaire: quel est le portrait des adultes émergents en formation professionnelle?” Presentation for the seminar La motivation dans les domaines de vie, 88th ACFAS convention, Université de Sherbrooke, May 4–8, 2020 (convention cancelled).

Doray, P., L. Ménard, and A. Adouane, (2008). “La prise en charge des transitions éducation-travail (école-emploi) au Québec,” Canadian Policy Research Networks.

Fortin, P. (2018). “Pénurie de main-d’œuvre: que faire ?” L’actualité. Downloaded from https://lactualite.com/lactualite-affaires/penurie-de-main-doeuvre-que-faire/

Hart, S.-A. (2015). “L’alternance travail études en ligne et en entreprise, un pas vers la formation duale et une innovation prometteuse pour l’industrie manufacturière,” Bulletin de l’Observatoire compétences-emploi, 5(4).

Masdonati, J., G. Fournier, and M. Pinault, (2015). “La formation professionnelle au Québec: le regard des élèves.” L’orientation scolaire et professionnelle, 44(2). doi: 10.4000/osp.4590

Misiorowska, M., M. Potvin, and S. Arcand. (2019). “Immigrants qualifiés cherchent qualification: La formation professionnelle et l’intégration au marché de l’emploi.”  Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation42(1), 138–169.

Solar-Pelletier, L. (2016). “Formation professionnelle et technique au Québec: un besoin de réforme.” Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres, 71, 53–62. doi: 10.4000/ries.4649