Adults in apprenticeships as a driver for change

In this blog post, Simon Broek writes about how apprenticeships for adults can create an environment in which companies become learning organisations and employees become lifelong learners.

Adult apprentices.


In this blog post, Simon Broek writes about how apprenticeships for adults can create an environment in which companies become learning organisations and employees become lifelong learners.


Adult learning in the workplace and the need for learning organisations

Europe needs to make sure its labour force can respond to the economy’s rapidly changing needs by enabling people to raise and broaden their skills throughout their lives. This would allow them to actively contribute to an innovative economy, shaping the jobs of the future. To achieve this, everyone needs to be constantly involved in learning, as this plays a central role in enabling workers to manage transitions at the workplace (or between jobs).

Learning skills at the workplace can generally enhance an adults’ personal development (economic benefits, improved well-being, improved engagement); it has benefits for employers (innovation, loyalty of workers, reduced incidents at work) as well as for the society as a whole (adaptability, social inclusion).

Adult learning at the workplace can be organised differently. Work-based learning can relate to apprenticeships, internships/traineeships and on on-the-job learning by employees (i.e. continuous professional development). The following figure provides a concise overview of different forms of work-based learning.

Work-based learning.

With all these different forms of work-based learning, in which adults engage, there are also many different policies that cover adult learning at the workplace (VET policies, higher education policies, labour market policies, sectoral policies etc.).

One central element in all these policies is that the working place needs to become instrumental in learning. In an ideal world, organisations will have to take a strategic re-orientation towards becoming learning organisations. This requires a long-term commitment in which organisations also need to build partnerships with other organisations and learning providers, and to distribute responsibilities for skill development between companies and VET institutions. This is exactly where the strength of apprenticeship systems can lie.


Adult apprenticeships

Apprenticeships, also for adults, have been high on the agenda in Europe in the last years. While there is quite a lot of research done on apprenticeships in general, less is known about adults in apprenticeships. In the last years, Cedefop and OECD are partly filling this gap while there is still a lot to explore.


Defining adult apprenticeships

The recently published Cedefop study (2019) focused on identifying differences between apprenticeships for young people and those for adults. It found that apprenticeships for adults are not currently considered a separate type of apprenticeships. It is challenging to clearly define adult apprenticeships, but they take into consideration the prior experience of adults and allow the learners to obtain a formal VET/HE qualification (in line with general apprenticeships characteristics).


Statistics are scarcely available

The OECD provides some statistical overviews. While contested, for statistical reasons, it demarcates adult apprenticeships by age: adults are aged 25 and older. The figure below shows that there are big differences in the distribution of apprenticeships across age groups in different countries.

Adult apprentices.

Source: Source: National statistics and Muehlemann, S. (forthcoming), ‘The Economics of Apprenticeships for Adults’, OECD Publishing; Note: Adults refer 25+ except Austria (21+) and Germany (24+). Included in an OECD presentation during the European Vocational Skills Week 2019 in Helsinki.


Other data presented by the OECD shows that in most countries, an increased number of adult apprentices is recorded. For instance, between 2008 and 2018 in Denmark the number almost doubled. The Cedefop study also found that adults increasingly participate in apprenticeship training, due to policy interventions and measures that have removed barriers and provided incentives.


Organisational impact of adult apprenticeships

Earlier studies, for instance Fuller et al (2015) hinted to the role adult apprenticeships play in creating a culture of continuous learning at the workplace that involves all employees, regardless of age. This culture is regarded as vital in ensuring that the workforce has the expertise necessary to meet business goals and in the survival of the business.

It is exactly this point that attracts my attention! Are apprenticeships for adults just another type of work-based learning, or are they more than that? Two more questions come to mind:

  1. Will organisations develop a more continuous development and learning culture when their employees are involved in longer-term learning pathways, compared to organisations in which employees participate in ad hoc workshops and short courses?
  2. Will companies and organisations increase their role in developing and renewing formal VET/higher education qualifications once they are more involved in the delivery of training leading to these qualifications?

Probably it is too early to tell and there is not enough research conducted on this, but maybe the following sheds some light on these issues:

  1. Concerning the development of a learning culture: Learning and development models for organisations often refer to the power of combining different learning methods. Consultancy firm McKinsey for instance refers to one of the nine dimensions that contribute to a strong learning and development function, as enabling of the 70:20:10 learning framework. This is a framework where 70% of learning takes place on the job, 20% – through interaction and collaboration, and 10% takes place through formal learning interventions, such as classroom training and digital curricula. This fits well with structured apprenticeships and provides the learners with a formal qualification that has a civic effect beyond the walls of the organisation. Furthermore, organisations will have to consider whether they can facilitate the learning towards the stated learning objectives: are the adult learners able to carry out the requested activities within the company? Are tools and equipment available?
  2. Concerning the involvement of companies in developing qualifications: A forthcoming Cedefop study on the role of learning outcomes in supporting the dialogue between the labour market and education and training showed that labour market actors can change the VET provision when they are in direct contact with VET providers, and do not necessarily have to rely on complicated feedback mechanisms to align qualifications to their needs. Apprenticeship systems are a way to tailor the VET provision to emerging needs. This is even more true for adults in apprenticeships and it becomes directly visible when the content of qualifications is not fitting with the real work practice.


Adult apprenticeships: drivers for change

Adult apprenticeships can be a driver for change concerning the relationship between formal VET / higher education qualifications, employers and lifelong learning. Under the influence of emerging adult apprenticeship systems, formal VET/HE qualifications might become better aligned to changing and emerging needs; employers might become more involved in renewing qualifications; employers might develop stronger learning cultures; and finally, adults might embark on longer-term learning journeys.

Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support

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