When is an apprenticeship not an apprenticeship?

I saw an interesting comment on Facebook recently, about the validity of current apprenticeships, which said, “I hope these are going to be real apprenticeships that last 4 or 5 years with HNCs or similar at the end of them as we had in the 60s and 70s.”

I think it’s true that there has been some hijacking of the term apprenticeship in recent years, both within the public and private sectors. This was highlighted by Doug Richard, when he launched the Richard Review of Apprenticeships. Richard said, “With the myriad of learning experiences which are currently labelled as apprenticeships, we risk losing sight of the core features of what makes apprenticeships work, so my conclusion is that we need to look again at what it means to be an apprentice and what it means to offer an apprenticeship as an employer.”

I couldn’t agree more with this. For whatever reason, whether for good marketing or confused intent, the word ‘apprenticeship’ has become a convenient label for many training programmes aimed at work starters. This doesn’t help us to compare today’s apprenticeships to those delivered back in the day.

It seems to me that the merits of the traditional apprenticeship were founded in a society-wide respect for the process. People were “time-served” and we all knew that meant they’d worked in a real location, solving real problems on the job for a pretty decent period of time. An apprenticeship wasn’t a crash course, it wasn’t shake-and-bake learning and it wasn’t a shortcut to anywhere. It was years on the job: solid learning. Ways of working were handed down, direct, from practitioners. This meant that people learned in-depth: it wasn’t theoretical, it was experiential – indeed, it was often almost always experiential, with four days working and one day learning at a local college.

Sounds pretty good. So why don’t we just go back to that? Well, like all visions of the past, we have to make sure that we’ve removed our rose-tinted spectacles. Traditional apprenticeships did have some downsides. The apprentice could become a lackey, not really learning so much as fetching and carrying. Learning could be very unstructured and inconsistent – not just from location to location but even from person to person. As a result, the training could take far longer than was actually needed.

What today’s apprenticeships aspire to do is address those issues, but combine the more structured and consistent learning with the real-world experience that we all know is so vital. The key ingredient, though – today as in the past – is to make sure that the apprenticeship is employer-led. By this I mean that the employer is directly involved in shaping the process of learning, so that the apprentice truly does become the ideal worker.

On top of which, we actually understand far more about the learning process than we did in the 60s and 70s and have far more available in the way of learning tools. Multimedia, e-learning, social media, the Internet – none of these existed back then. There are so many ways in which learning can be more effective – and more relevant to the younger generation.

So, if we can focus our vocabulary so that we can regain a common understanding of what an apprenticeship is, I believe that today’s apprenticeships can build on what we learned in the past and actually become something significantly better – not an induction course that’s simply labelled ‘apprenticeship’ but a real, in-depth learning process that prepares people for work in the best possible way.

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