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Apprenticeship holds key to the future of jobs for today's young people

By Antoney Luvinzu | September 4th 2021

An engineering student operates a numerical control machine during a practical lesson at Riatirimba Technical Training Institute in Kisii County. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

It’s said that nothing beats experience. Not age, not academic credentials, nothing. It cannot be bought, or wished for, or stolen. Heck, you cannot even bribe to get it, or fix it like instant coffee. Experience is borne off sheer work; a hands-on approach, attention to detail, all these done consistently, and with diligence, over time.  

In a labour market fixated with experience as a yardstick or indicator for a candidate’s suitability, consequently locking out potential talent, there is a compelling need to think of bridging the gap between talent and experience. To equip young talent with the requisite experience needed to face the blistering labour market. And what better way to this than embracing the concept of apprenticeship.

So what, really, is an apprenticeship? How can it be executed? How different is it from mentorship? And how can it blend with the formal schooling system?  In essence, apprenticeship happens when one is trained in an art, or trade, or craft under a formal or informal agreement by someone considered a master or authority in the said discipline.

 Apprenticeship is predicated on the hands-on approach, doing the actual work. Apprenticeship is arguably the oldest education model, where a young person interested in a given field could sit at the foot of a master to learn the trade for a while, before leaving to chat his/her own path. This was more than just the transfer of skills. It taught the apprentice key life skills such as humility, patience, calmness/stillness, attention to detail, attitude, hard work, resilience/grit, the art of timing {knowing when to leave} et cetera.

Formal education - inadvertently or not - killed this age old practice. However, some trades, mostly in the informal sector, the major cog of our economy, still embrace this practice. Since pre-historic times, the concept of apprenticeship was geared at maintaining an adequate number of craftsmen. As way back as the 18th century, in the early civilisations like Egypt and Babylon, artists were required, tacitly, to teach their crafts to the next generation.

In ‘super power’ empires such as Rome, many craft men were slaves. With time though, as the balance of power shifted in Rome there was latitude for craftsmen to start organising themselves into institutions.

This was replicated all across Europe in the mould of craft guilds, whose key mandate was to ensure seamless transfer of skills from masters to prentices, oversee quality of products, monitor methods of production and general working conditions. Guilds were under the tutelage of master craftsmen, and one only got admitted only if they had once been apprentices themselves. Apprenticeship could normally last seven years.

This concept of apprenticeship carried on well beyond the craft guilds in the middle ages. For instance, universities adopted the concept with the master’s degree. Religious institutions, in the same vein, provided training to newcomers by requiring them to pass through a novitiate. The same approach was adopted in medicine and law.

The future of the labour market calls for a return to apprenticeship. The real challenge of the information age is not 5G or developing more advanced AI and gadgets, it’s that we aren’t giving premium training to our young ones for the jobs of today and tomorrow. As observed by the World Economic Forum, while the outlook for jobs is on the right track, averagely, 42% of skills requirements are expected to change by 2022 alone. Reskilling is one of the major necessities and challenges of our era.

Yet most of these skill sets cannot be learned and mastered in the lecture hall alone. To develop the right attitude, the master the nuances of trade require one to immerse themselves in experiential learning. For instance, on their own, there’s no guarantee that an intelligent, highly educated graduate with a business or math degree will succeed on a commodities trading floor. However, if placed under the tutelage of an experienced guru in the trade they will learn the ropes and flourish.

It would appear that apprenticeship and mentorship are one and the same thing. Far from it. Although similar in terms of the basic intent - that is learning from a more skilled and experienced person in a given discipline - the two are fundamentally different. Whilst mentorship is geared towards establishing a bond and relationship with an individual whom one respects and sees value in their wisdom and advice, apprenticeship is appreciating the craft and the person and submitting yourself to tutelage. Basically, it is more practical, more hands-on so to speak.

To distill it further, mentorship leans more on offering unique, valuable, and relevant perspectives regarding life. A mentor is key in character development that is consequently vital in professional development. A master in apprenticeship is like an athletic trainer. Someone who sees value in supporting the development of a particular skillset in an individual. The long and short of it is; a master in apprenticeship is someone you want to be like professionally. A mentor is someone you want to learn from personally.

Often, there’s a world of a difference between what’s taught at school, and the experience in the job market. This creates a skill gap, one of the top concerns in the labour market worldwide. This is making apprenticeships to gradually become one of the top choices for employers looking to address the skills gap. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025 about 75 million jobs will be eliminated due to artificial intelligence alone, and about 133 million new positions will be created in turn. The same report states that 54% of employees will need to reskill, regardless of whether their job is white- or blue-collar, and will need to favor computer and math skills to compensate for the talent deficit.

This gap has also been widened by the misperception of manufacturing careers by ‘millennials’. This lack of interest in manufacturing and STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) depicts the need for the active partnership between companies and institutions of higher learning to engage with younger students in these areas and increase skilled professionals to satisfy industrial needs.

The skills gap is a multifaceted problem that is affected by various factors, such as unmarketable courses in schools, employee recruitment and training, low student numbers in manufacturing careers, and the retirement of baby boomers. Apprenticeships offer one of the most effective solutions to industrial corporations and the general job market, and are well suited to the task due to their hands-on nature and reskilling potential. They can grant a broad set of skills and possibilities, potentially increasing a person’s chance of getting hired and making them privy to greater earnings.

Jobs without people. People without jobs. Employers know about the mismatch between the skills employers need and the skills workers have. To address such gaps and prepare individuals to meet sophisticated talent needs, more organisations ought to implement apprenticeships. Modern apprenticeships are a powerful option for recent high-school graduates, university/college graduates, and workers seeking a new start. They’re available in a broad range of 21st-century industries and occupations, from cybersecurity, healthcare, and data analytics to hospitality management, green sciences, engineering, and advanced manufacturing.

For instance, a software design and development company can run an apprenticeship program since, the recruitment and hiring of software engineers is done, but it’s still difficult to draw top-notch personnel. This company can be a cutting-edge business in the service industry and college graduates cannot meet the stellar skills needed. They can possess lots of theoretical knowledge, but lack experience and skills in the latest software development tools. The apprenticeship programme can provide talent by blending classroom and on-the-job training with a strong mentorship component.

Both the path into apprenticeships and the path out may differ fundamentally across education systems. Such different paths matter when it comes to understanding who does an apprenticeship and how much they benefit. The educational systems open to students in large part determine which young people enter apprenticeship systems and why. In some countries, it is possible to move between academic and vocational education streams, while in others the streams are quite separate.

For example, educational systems in Israel and Thailand allow students who have chosen vocational education access to higher education. In both countries, vocational education has as high a return as—and sometimes higher than—an academic education.

Within much of sub-Saharan Africa, public educational systems stress academic training almost exclusively. Tanzania shifted the focus of its education system from vocational to academic instruction in the 1990s, influenced in part by arguments from influential aid donors.

In Kenya, an attempt in the 1980s to shift the education system to a more vocational focus failed. Therefore, for the apprenticeship model to thrive, an education system must be functional in both parallel academic and vocational educational streams. Simply put, we must lay a foundation for a dual system.

However, to make apprenticeship opportunities more widely available, we must connect apprenticeship to our higher education system, enabling people to be apprentices and college students at the same time. To design policies to support apprenticeship pathways to and through higher education, we must first make students who are also apprentices visible in higher education data systems. ‘Student apprentice’ needs to be a distinct category that we can recognise, track, and support through public policy. These students should be enrolled or accepted for enrolment at an institution for the purpose of obtaining a degree, certificate, or other recognized educational credential offered by that institution. The majority of colleges or universities that provide the ‘related technical instruction’ courses can provide programs of apprenticeship through their workforce.

We can build connections across our higher education and apprenticeship systems by creating degrees that reflect the quality standards of both systems (academic and vocational educational streams). These “Degree Apprenticeship” programs should be intentionally designed to integrate the on-the-job learning and mentorship central to apprenticeship with the general education and broad knowledge that form the heart of a college degree. Student-apprentices would be able to fulfil requirements of both while also earning a living. This can provide the platform upon which an evidence base can be constructed to show the effectiveness of apprenticeship as a strategy for promoting degree completion, reducing reliance on student loans, and improving post-graduation outcomes.

Expanding apprenticeship into new careers will require stronger connections between our higher education, career-technical, and apprenticeship systems, but not a wholesale reinvention of any of them. A mix of well-targeted policies and investments can foster greater collaboration across educational institutions, employers, and apprenticeship intermediaries.

Our institutions ought to accept learning from outside through very proscribed methods. Engaging key stakeholders, including industry and professional associations and accredited bodies is would be predominant. We should see more apprenticeship programmes popping up for nurses, medical technicians, teachers, engineers, and cybersecurity specialists, all occupations where employers are experiencing shortages.

[The writer is an IB educator. [email protected]]

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