Why Apprenticeship Schemes Fail?

Apprenticeships seem like one idea whose time never comes.

Or, its time may have come and gone, long time ago. Its past makes it appear romantic, just like medieval castles and knights. Its reality, however, might have been very different: Apprenticeships might have been too long and too limiting. There was a reason why it was one of the practises that died off with time. But its passing is mourned, and its memory evokes a time when work meant a long commitment and lifelong engagement. It signifies a different reality from today's uprooted workers and dehumanised workplaces, something we feel nostalgic about.

So it is evoked from time to time, as the policy-makers run out of ideas. As job crisis hits countries - an effect of the twin forces of globalisation and automation - college, the enabler of middle class dream, seems to fall short. College's own medieval mystic, that of a detached pursuit of humanistic knowledge, looks out of place - too long, too academic, too disconnected and too expensive! Various rounds of government funding, therefore, seeks to build apprenticeships as a technically focused and employer engaged alternative, a panacea to the persistent skills deficit and productivity issues.

Just one problem: They don't work! 

This is one of the areas in modern policy-making no one really wants to talk about. Or, even when people acknowledge that the Apprenticeships did not work, they usually see this as an implementation issue. Each successive Government Minister, in Britain and elsewhere, comes up with his or her own tweaks in the system, one final solution to fix the broken system, until the next Minister and his solutions. No one wants to ask the question whether Apprenticeships are fit for purpose - as a catch-all solution for getting millions of young people into jobs - because it is politically so attractive, both to the Right and to the Left. This is one of the last remaining orthodoxies everyone can agree on.

But, as I mentioned, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Apprenticeships often lead to nowhere. Indeed, there are success stories in the newspapers, but that's the man-bites-dog case, exceptions rather than the rule. Besides, apprenticeships often mean getting stuck, at a low level poorly paid job, where only permanent factor is the lack of job security. Where are the 3 million success stories of David Cameron apprentices, one would ask. India seems deeper into skills deficit after its much vaunted skills training programme spent all its money. And, in America, it never seems to take off! 

Before I write any further, though, I must make a distinction between Apprenticeships as an idea and Apprenticeships as a programme or approach of mass training. Indeed, the successful apprentices are everywhere: All doctors, nurses, lawyers and Accountants have gone through some form of long and arduous apprenticeships. But the government programmes aim differently: Not long but shorter apprenticeships (one year is the most common length) and not at 'professional' jobs but vocational, shop floor ones. This is the second type which has manifestly failed, and its failure is becoming even more pervasive and troubling as the workplaces change and Robots step in.

One can perhaps see two problems almost instantaneously with these Apprenticeship programmes as conceived.

First, while they try to reclaim the medieval charm of apprenticeships, the government programmes are funding-bound and focused on wrong parameters. Mastery of a job, which requires long engagement, is not the goal. In fact, these programmes are measured by time and not mastery. And, therefore, shorter the better, as long programmes will not be financially feasible and politically attractive. These programmes, therefore, are often designed to be illusions of apprenticeships, a frugal and superficial supply of cheap labour, often a distraction to serious employers than a strategic source of talent. 

Second, apprenticeships aim low. The modern apprenticeship programmes are designed to serve those who can't go to college. College, and its supposed aim of professional knowledge, remains the ideal, the way to middle class dream. The apprenticeships are the second class option, for those who are not very good. This devalues apprenticeships as an option almost from the start. The colleges choose to avoid the word altogether, sticking to an alternative such as the internship, and while it remains common among many professions, apprentices are seen as those who failed. In a society where politicians promote middle class dreams, apprenticeships are tickets to nowhere. In areas where education is meaningless without practical work, professions that I cite above but also sectors such as Hospitality, a long apprenticeship often forms the core of a degree programme. But, anything outside, anything that the Government labels as Apprenticeship, is immediately devalued and rendered meaningless.

Therefore, persistence of college guarantees the failure of the apprenticeship schemes. But this is a bigger problem than it appears. It is not just about degree over diploma, to be fixed with tweaks of funding regimes. It is mainly about what kind of knowledge we value. We prefer expert, theoretical knowledge over contextual knowledge emanating from practise, an enlightenment idea ingrained in modernity (and in college education). The global turn, as well as automation, may push the pendulum back and practical, local knowledge may have become more important, but the idea is still at odds with how we think. We want to codify ' soft skills' even when we acknowledge they are 'soft' and intangible, because our infatuation with a particular idea of knowledge and mastery runs so deep. This is the biggest hurdle Apprenticeship schemes face: What we call knowledge and expertise and what we value is directly oppositional to what they promote. And, unless this changes, Apprenticeship Schemes will remain the panacea in waiting.  

 


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