Time, working and learning

by Viktoria Kis
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Seven years is the right length for apprenticeships – thought Queen Elizabeth I of England as she lifted her feather to sign the Statute of Apprentices in 1563. Seven years would ensure that everyone benefits: apprentices would receive good training and masters would gain from their apprentices’ labour – although it must be admitted that back then, many apprentices died before finishing their training or ran away from masters who starved them.

Today policy makers, employer and employee representatives have different considerations in mind, but the dynamics of costs and benefits matter just as much. Those dynamics need to be built into the design of apprenticeships and other work-based learning to make it attractive to both employers and learners. A new OECD study funded by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, entitled Work, train, win: Work-based learning design and management for productivity gains casts a spotlight on these issues.

At the beginning of work-based learning programmes employers make an investment. This pays off later on when, after receiving high quality training, skilled trainees achieve higher productivity and contribute to production. That final period when trainees are more productive than they cost is essential, as it helps employers recoup their initial costs. But if it is too long, then trainees will find it unattractive. Of course, not all occupations are the same. For example an apprentice in retail can quickly become productive so a work-based learning scheme for this occupation should be shorter, while a person training to be an industrial mechanic typically needs more time to become competent at their job and longer duration would be appropriate.

What exactly trainees do while in the workplace also affects the balance of costs and benefits for both parties. A restaurant benefits both when an apprentice cook peels potatoes (unskilled work) and when they bake a soufflé (skilled work), but gains no immediate benefits when the would-be cook is doing practice exercises that are non-productive, even though they are developing their skills. The good news is that there is often room to build learning into productive work, in ways that benefit the firms and are neutral for the trainees. For example, after observing their supervisor a trainee might practice the skill either through simulations or by doing real work. They improve their skills either way, but doing real work also generates benefits for the firm. Indeed research found that German firms with apprentices reduced the share of non-productive activities by half between 2000 and 2007, and increased the share of productive work – and they did that while maintaining training quality.

The scope for learning through productive work does vary across occupations. An apprentice cook can have a go at their first beurre blanc on day one, but a would-be electrician must undertake substantial training before touching the wires. But whenever possible, learning should take place as part of productive activities and rigorous assessments at the end of the scheme can verify that learning has taken place – if an apprentice electrician is able to correctly install a branch circuit in front of an examiner, there will be no doubt about it.

Putting this into practice requires management capacity within firms, so that they can allocate trainees and supervisors to tasks that meet the twin goals of learning and production. In countries and sectors with a tradition of work-based learning firms have much tacit knowledge (as many employers used to be apprentices themselves) and there is a surrounding infrastructure, such as training for trainers and instructional resources. Developing the infrastructure and enhancing firms’ ability to manage work-based learning is a big job, but well worth the effort and not just for those involved in a work-based learning scheme. Keeping a workplace up-to-date means dealing with new machines, materials and software, so firms that know how to support learning while getting on with productive activities will have a competitive edge.

When Queen Elizabeth I put down her feather, the law she signed remained in place for 250 years. Today policy and practice regarding work-based learning changes much more rapidly – but the main challenge of getting the design of work-based learning schemes right remains just as important as it was in her day.

OECD Education Working Paper: Work, train, win: work-based learning design and management for productivity gains, by Viktoria Kis
Find out more about Work-based learning
Photo credit: Vector freehand linear monochrome drawing of ancient pen and inkwell @Shutterstock

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