For generations apprenticeships have offered young people a chance to up skill and be part of the working landscape. Old-style, “time-served” apprenticeships such as those in the mines and former heavy shipbuilding industry were a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Many sociological studies have pointed to the benefits that came for the younger generation being exposed to adult peer groups.
Now that we have relatively few heavy industries, the provision of apprenticeships is the linking of young people with a wide variety of opportunities in organisations, small and large. Employers don’t always directly recruit to their own apprenticeship schemes, preferring instead to use specialist training organisations that draw down funds from government based on their success in placing apprentices.
This approach has many merits, not least the number of opportunities that can be provided. The downside however, is that apprenticeships can on occasion reduce our young people to units of earned worth for the organisations administering them. This leaves a real danger of creating and filling spaces as opposed to truly tailoring apprenticeships to the needs of employers.
An apprenticeship is a long-term project of socialising a young person not only into the skills requisite to the industry they are entering, but to the world of work itself and the expectations and values of the organisation they are placed in. This can be challenging in many ways and needs to be sensitively done. Many other young people are now placed on an individual rather than block basis, often with small firms who see apprentices as an opportunity to fill an unmet need or to allow for an expansion of the organisation in a way that otherwise could not have been financed.
A difficult balance has to be struck between the learning and support needs of the apprentice and the needs of the organisation in this respect. I have seen many apprenticeships fail from a combination of inappropriate placement, organisations failing to appreciate the support needs of the apprentice and the excessive expectations of the incumbent.
Apprenticeships are a valuable opportunity to allow business to contribute to a community by giving a young person a real opportunity in the short term, with the long-term gain of growing an individual who can actively contribute to the organisation and in all probability, offer some longer term commitment towards it.
In the short term however, the real challenge is to ensure that the organisation is fit and ready to receive an apprentice and to provide an appropriate environment of supervision and support. Simply paying lip service to the requirements of those making placements benefits none of the parties involved.
For many apprentices, placement into an organisation is a challenging experience. This level of high challenge for the apprentice must be met by correspondingly high levels of support by the organisation. Nothing can be worse than an apprenticeship that has failed.
It reflects badly on the company, but most importantly, impact upon the self-image of a young person who has mustered hope of being an active participant in the world of work and society at large. Offering apprenticeships therefore is a matter that must never be taken lightly, and while the benefits of success are great for all involved, there are consequences of failure. As always, it falls to organisations to have the leadership ability and ethical stance to ensure positive outcomes.