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Why apprenticeships will not solve the real Youth Employment issue.

I am working in an office which has just taken on two apprentices.  They appear bright, capable and charming.  Not the stereotypical mono syllabic non communicators with no work ethic that you hear about.

The problem is what do they do?  They have done the first set of tasks, that little set of not important non urgent nice to have tasks that every office has.  Now what?  What are they actually going to do?

This sparks for me the really big issue of where are the entry level jobs in a service based, white collar economy?  And it makes me think that this is maybe what is really at the heart of the current malaise of youth unemployment

The challenges are clear to us.

  • How do you learn when there is nothing to watch?
  • How do you learn when most of the conversations are on email?
  • What is the sense of progress when the finished item is intangible?
  • Who do you learn from in a virtual team?
  • Who do you learn from if everyone is doing a different job?
  • What do you do when everyone does their own admin?

Our models of learning for careers are still too often based around a traditional Master Pupil model where if you put people in a work place they will osmose the skills they need.  Etienne Wenger in his book Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning and Identity refers to this as “Legitimate Peripheral Participation” in other words being there but at the edge.  But again what does this mean when the work is so hard to observe.

Clearly in some industries there is still work that can be learned in this way.  Think of tree surgery, plumbing or even nursing, where practical observation matters. But for many of the more interesting organisational contexts this is not the case. There is not enough to observe.

One response in software development is in the Agile programming ethos. In this it encourages pair programming where two coders work on code together on the same monitor and both learn and deliver higher quality code.  But this is a rare practice and a rare response from a profession.

Another response is to rely on academic learning to fill the gap.  But this also does not fill the gap as the practice and the theory are so far removed from each other.

In our view the challenge is to design entry level jobs which deliver learning and value to the employer.  This is possible but takes

  • real investment of design time by the practitioners
  • a long term perspective, this is not about just the next month
  • expertise in designing learning for different life stages

Of course the organisations who get this right will gain great people and great reputations and a potential for competitive advantage but in general  pushing 1000 of young people into poorly designed apprenticeships is not the answer.

p.s. a recent interesting blog on when an intern works in HR http://bit.ly/HxALYM