Richard Marsh

What does the current #coronavirus crisis tell us about the future of work-based learning? 

It is obviously too early to appreciate the long-term impacts of the current crisis.

However it has already raised fundamental questions about the future of Apprenticeships and work-based learning in general.

Over the past week or so I have enjoyed several remote meetings on this subject; including debating these points with the Global Apprenticeship Network

The two big issues seem to be:

  1. Protecting the volume and availability of Apprenticeship opportunities
  2. The long term suitability of Apprenticeship in a virtual working world

Creating enough places for this summer’s Apprenticeship seekers

The great advantage of work-based Apprenticeships is that they are driven by employment opportunities. This means that it is not left to Education providers or Government departments to forecast what ‘skills’ will be required and to put on courses in advance; which can often lead to skills gaps and labour market mismatches. Rather the programme responds rapidly and fluidly to the actual needs of the labour market, balancing skills supply and demand. If employers need more Plumbers, Managers, or Accountants they will create more Apprenticeships.

And where training is required, it is rewarded. Hence the enviable return-on-investment that comes with Apprenticeships.

The downside of this of course is that this rapid response can also quickly turn negative. When an economic shock occurs, then the availability of Apprenticeships can reduce very quickly, much more quickly than full-time education places for example.

And this reduction will disproportionally affect young people looking for work, as they have fewer proven work-skills and thus require greater and longer term investment by employers (as the Federation of UK Industry Sector Skills (FISS) pointed out starkly last week).

The (hopefully) short-term challenge here is how we can support employers to keep creating Apprenticeship opportunities for those leaving Education this summer- without unintentionally subsiding ‘dead end’ or ‘deadweight’ training places and removing the primary policy advantage of Apprenticeships (that it only provides training that is needed).

The temptation will be to put more young people into full-time education which provides them with meaningful activity but which might not be the right option for them.

We will need smart use of incentives to give employers the confidence to invest in Apprentices and the smart deployment of technology to recruit and train remotely.

To accommodate this, the traditional September intake of Apprentices might instead need to be spaced over several months for example and this will only be possible with flexible support for Apprenticeship employers, seekers and providers.

In England we have seen a relaxation of some rules in areas such as Apprentice unemployment and furloughing, but to save this year’s Apprenticeship cohort will require more radical thinking.

Can Apprenticeships really work in the virtual workplace?

The second potentially more fundamental and longer term challenge is to the concept of Apprenticeship itself.

The only Apprenticeship model that has worked for any length of time and scale is the ‘dual-system’ as practised in Germany, Switzerland, Austria etc.

Famously this is based on the duality of an Apprentice simultaneously undertaking both:

  1. an academic ‘off the job’ course that provides a broad base of knowledge to support the individual’s immediate and future career needs &
  2. an ‘on the job’ training and assessment programme that is linked to the development and demonstration of real world competence.

This combination creates a uniquely powerful learning model, as it gives individuals both theory and practise – so that they learn to do the initial job - but also gain the wider knowledge base they need to progress with their careers.

Thus it is no surprise that many countries (the UK included) have sought to recreate the essence of this approach in their Apprenticeships.

So far, so good. But what happens when the future changes an industry more quickly than the ‘off the job’ syllabus can, as has recently happened with the Hospitality and Tourism sectors for example.

Or when the ‘on the job’ work element becomes a remote, home working position without the opportunity for the guiding hand of a work-place mentor or supervisor.

Can Apprenticeship rise to these challenges – and will it still remain the gold star for work-based education

These questions were discussed at length by experts from around the world at the Global Apprenticeship Network last week.

During an online seminar which generated some really interesting observations:

  • The impact of the Virus is clearly not identical for everyone. The opportunity to be socially distant and to ‘work from home’ is much reduced in less developed countries for example or for lower income groups within countries such as the UK
  • Internet access and laptop / smartphone access are no longer luxuries but essentials that every learner needs access to, as well as a safe and quiet study area
  • The very different impact by age and education was also highlighted by FISS who found that Graduates are three times as likely to have a ‘work from home’ option as employees who have only got compulsory School leaver qualifications for example

Apprenticeships in a Virtual World

We are now spending an increasing amount of our working (and private) lives in virtual worlds. Apprentices are no different and will be studying and working in virtual environments.

Technology is obviously an essential requirement for providing remote / virtual training and assessment. However this needs to be more than just cold e-learning. There needs to be interaction, coaching and support as well as reading...

And there needs to be a due attention paid to the learning itself being part of an Apprenticeship. The monitored application of acquired knowledge is what elevates an Apprenticeship above a mere ‘course’ and we must not lose that vital element.

This might mean that a ‘home’ based Apprentice will be better served by shorter, more frequent lessons and tests that can be more easily taught online and cross referenced with changing work activities. Rather than setting up large blocks of learning and fixed timetables we need to allow Apprentices to be flexible for their employers.

Crucially shorter, smaller packages of learning can also be more easily and frequently updated as job roles evolve. Frequent marking and feedback will keep learners motivated, especially those who are isolated or separated from their peers.

Employers and Training providers will need to work even more closely in order to support and coach Apprentices whose working practises have changed abruptly. Reviews can and should still be conducted with Learner / Line manager and Apprentice present for example, and this can be done via video or conference calls.

And there are opportunities here too. In our new virtual reality the best tutors can be accessed by more students, regardless of location or nationality. Removing the physical location reduces the camaraderie of the classroom but also removes its compromises too.

Online learners can move at distinct speeds with programmes tailored to individual – not whole class average – needs. Courses can be bespoken and tailored to ability and circumstance creating individualised Apprenticeships.

As always, the market, consumers and employers move much more quickly than regulatory bodies.

Business has moved online and bodies such as awarding and professional organisations need to now catch up, by developing remote assessment and examination solutions for example. And in the long term I think that the virtual learning world raises questions about the ongoing validity of big set-piece examinations and the visual assessment of on the job competence.

Neither home Schooling nor remote Higher Education have ever really challenged the supremacy of the classroom as the default learning option for those cohorts. But this doesn’t mean that Work Based Learning / VET / Apprenticeships cannot make that leap.

Keeping up with the "New Normal"

The UK response to the last financial crisis was to take Apprenticeships in a new direction.

To open them up to people of all ages and in all sectors. Following and reflecting the evolving UK economy allowed Apprenticeships to grow during a period of economic stagnation.

We will need more of the same bold thinking now.

Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Director, Kaplan Financial

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