From education to employment

The importance of supervised work experience in apprenticeships

Dr Simon Reddy is a master plumber and FE teacher and a founding member of Tutor Voices

This article discusses the importance of apprenticeship ‘time-serving’ in the work context and its absence in general plumbing qualifications and Trailblazer in England. In the context of plumbing apprenticeships, time-serving may be understood as sustained employment doing technical and professional training under the supervision of a more qualified person.

The vast majority of tutors and students in my study of full-time courses and apprenticeships in plumbing viewed work experience as the most important aspect of vocational teaching and learning. Indeed, in my observations, it emerged as a crucial element in the education and training of plumbers. It not only helped apprentices to understand and embody some of the theory taught in college, but it also acted as a strong motivating force in terms of their enthusiasm and commitment to learning. Apprentices enjoyed their real-world experiences, and they were observed to be far more motivated in the workplace than in the college setting.

In terms of the working relationships developed between apprentices and their colleagues in the workplace, my study showed these were highly valued by both adult students and apprentices. First, the relationships impacted on their work ethic. The apprentices in my study were inclined to take on the characteristics of their co-workers’ identities in the work context. They assimilated their co-workers’ busy behaviour in working to deadlines, producing high standards of workmanship and productivity. This was in contrast to the work ethic often observed in what some described as the ‘more laid back’ environment of the college. Second, the working relationships had a direct impact on the apprentices’ learning. Co-workers were described by the majority of students as responsive in helping them to learn at work. Some described their co-workers as friends, and others showed respect for those they had learned from in the field. When apprentices made mistakes, they learned from this process safely while being continually supervised, corrected and advised by co-workers. They were guided in taking supported risks in their work-based learning, which helped them develop knowledge and competence in dealing with increasingly difficult tasks over time. In this respect, the plumbing apprentices were being ‘scaffolded’ in their learning, which helped them to deal with the unexpected plumbing problems that are an integral part of the occupation. In short, the findings of my study suggested that apprentices’ time-serving experiences in the workplace could not be fast-tracked, learned or replicated as effectively elsewhere.

The empirical evidence presented here is supported by the academic literature, which argues for the importance of work experience in the learning and understanding of vocational skills and knowledge. Despite this, there is ambiguity surrounding a key aspect of the apprenticeship Trailblazer standard in relation to the need for genuine work experience. The BIS (2014: 24) Trailblazer guidance states: ‘a new entrant to the occupation will require at least one year of training to meet the standard’. It fails to specify, however, whether training will be undertaken via a full-time college course or in the context of the workplace and, as such, it implies that evidence of plumbing competence can be acquired through college-based training without the need for employment or qualified supervision in the workplace.

Although there is a common assumption in the vocational literature that NVQs brought an end to time-serving in apprenticeships, there was clear evidence that the apprentices in my study were learning at work over periods of up to four years, which meant they could be deemed to be time-serving. However, there was very little in the plumbing qualification to acknowledge this significant achievement. Historically, apprentices became Journeymen or Masters when their apprenticeships finished, but these titles were removed from apprenticeships to give weight to the NVQ as the key outcome of apprenticeships. These apprentices were observed working to the standards expected of them by their co-workers, clients and external inspection bodies. This implies that they were already working to standard and therefore no additional external assessment was required, which poses serious questions as to the purpose of Trailblazer end-testing and whether it is needed for employed apprentices serving long apprenticeships.

In conclusion, time-serving in apprenticeships must be central to any quality apprenticeship standard, and competence-based plumbing qualifications should not be awarded to candidates who cannot provide sustained evidence of supervised workplace experience. As work experience is something that cannot be replicated outside of the work context, it is far too important to be left to vague interpretation in any apprenticeship standard.

Dr Simon Reddy is a master plumber and FE teacher and a founding member of Tutor Voices

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