Virtual apprenticeships may be good for acquiring new skills, but they can't always help candidates apply them in practice.

One of the most successful workplace training models is the apprenticeship. A popular alternative to higher education among young people, it combines classroom-based study with ‘on the job’ training and assessment linked to the development and demonstration of real world competence. When the pandemic hit, both elements had to move online, presenting a number of advantages, and for some, significant disadvantages.

Photo by Maxime Agnelli on Unsplash

Virtual apprenticeships


Working from home allowed apprentices to focus on projects, portfolios and collating evidence towards the final assessment of their apprenticeship, while topping up their technical knowledge through virtual learning.


In sectors like technology, business administration, and digital marketing the transition was fairly seamless. US-based tech apprenticeship provider Apprenti pivoted to online education for the learning requirements, and is working with companies to help apprentices continue their on-the-job training at home.


However, in industries, such as construction and manufacturing, the practical nature of the work renders the fully virtual apprenticeship all but impossible. Problems emerge when evidencing competency and knowledge. This is particularly true in sectors where apprenticeships require evidence of application of skills in the workplace such as carpentry or landscape gardening.


The challenges of face to face assessments


Highway services company Electrical Testing Ltd (ETL) also provides electrical training courses, including apprenticeships, for other companies. To keep their training facility operational during the pandemic they transitioned to online learning via Google classrooms. But as training centre manager Carl Green explains this was only ever going to be a temporary measure.


“A face-to-face assessment of the technical certificate is an industry requirement,” he says. “In addition, 80% of the course is face-to-face, including Level 2 and Level 3 assessments using plant machinery and electrical testing equipment, so the programmes can never be completely virtual.”


Apprenticeships are vital to the future skills, competitiveness, and economies of countries all over the world, including those in Europe, the UK, and the US. Switzerland’s flagship apprenticeship system has become a pipeline of talent for Swiss companies. A few years ago, it pioneered the concept of learning a trade remotely using satellite technology, allowing apprentices to gain overseas industry experience and connect to a virtual classroom back in Switzerland. It’s not inconceivable that modern VR and AR technologies could be used to replicate the workplace and facilitate virtual evidencing and assessment.


But some experts insist that learning solely online will impact an individual’s social skills, personal confidence and impersonal awareness that comes with taking an apprenticeship. Amanda Rosewarne, CEO of the CPD Standards Office, says: “People may be able to learn the technicalities, history and background to an apprentice topic, but without the ability to apply new skills in a constructive social work setting they will struggle.”


Rising youth unemployment


However, a much bigger concern is the economic impact of COVID-19 on youth unemployment and apprenticeships. A survey by the Institute of Student Employers revealed that 23% of employers are cutting their apprenticeship and school leaver programmes due to the pandemic. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) employees aged under 25 were about two and a half times more likely to work in a sector that is now shut down as other employees.


“We will see high youth unemployment for some time as many companies either ditch their current apprenticeship schemes, or fail to employ new apprentices in the face of a looming recession,” adds Rosewarne. “It is imperative that employers continue with current apprenticeships to keep the economy going.”


Students are also rethinking their career plans, with a study showing that nearly 30% are considering taking a gap year, and of that, 53% plan to find work or an internship, while 19% are using it to take online courses. Traditional apprenticeships, traineeships and internships that incorporate virtual learning and upskilling could be the next talent magnet. Some large financial services organisations, including Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan, are responding to this trend by offering virtual internships to secure the talent they need to succeed in a future beyond COVID-19.


A tailored approach


The success of these virtual workplace programmes will be determined by the quality of the online elements. A consultation into the management of apprenticeships during COVID-19 by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training found this varied, ranging from simply communicating and providing access to multimedia resources, to actual teaching.


Clearly, not all industries are able to switch to a fully online programme of learning, but the way that the pandemic has hastened the modularization of virtual learning could help to make workplace training more inclusive.


“Learning is becoming more bite-sized at a time when adaptability is key, and educational platforms are making training easily digestible for learners whenever and wherever they need,” says Simon Tindall, head of skills and innovation at The Open University. “This means that training is now delivered on employees’ terms, which could help level the playing field in terms of access.”


Building new skills pipelines


People also learn at different speeds, with programmes tailored to the individual rather than class average abilities, needs, and circumstances, giving rise to individualised apprenticeships and other. This in turn will open more pathways for mid-career job seekers through the likes of traineeships and other vocational workplace programmes, helping companies to bolster workforce skills as they prepare for economic recovery.


In the post-COVID era, with remote working likely to remain in place for some time companies and training providers will need to adapt training programmes, materials and delivery accordingly. Some elements are ripe for conversion to online; others are doable with a little imagination and the right technology.


However, while this pandemic has forced many of us to be creative, not all walks of life can be moved to the virtual world. For some industries and positions, nothing can replicate the in-person experience and the first-hand application of skills in practice.


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