Apprenticeships - where are we?

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On Apprenticeships - It is not often that I find myself agreeing with Eoin Harris, but recently in the Sunday Independent he gave a rousing call to re-evaluate and appreciate apprenticeships. He compares Germany and Ireland. In Germany they have over 300 apprenticeships whereas in Ireland we have 22 mainly in construction. He also points out that the apprenticeships schemes help alleviate German youth unemployment. He argues that we have not emulated the German system because we place an excessive value on third level education. But even there we have to learn to do the job. Even in the most sought after courses in medicine he points out that hospitals provide on-the-job training. He writes,” In plain language, it’s an apprenticeship course, the apprenticeship aspect of which is hidden by a veil of social prejudice.”

He points out that Lidl run their management course based on the apprenticeship model not because it can’t get enough business graduates but because they believe that a college course is not enough. He calls for more input from industry to college courses.

Finally he reminded readers that the first aim of education is to create a fully rounded person. “Recently, DCU asked the top global employers to tell them what they wanted in business graduates.

The employers said they wanted young people who were comfortable as part of a team, capable of critical thinking, and who could share decision-making.

But above all, they wanted graduates with good communication skills. There was no mention of a 1:1 honours degree, Master’s or PhD degree. No demand for a south County Dublin accent. Global employers wanted what classical educators wanted: well-rounded men and women who could think and talk.”

Eoin Harris is not the only one who has pointed out that our obsession with third level education is short-sighted, Matthew Crawford, who has a Ph.D in political philosophy gave up his job as executive director in a Washington Think Tank to start his own business as a mechanic of vintage motorcycles. He pointed out that despite the hype we can’t take leave of material reality and glide around in a pure information economy. Now, as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, and build our houses. Further, the globalised economy has sprung a cruel surprise on many who invested in a university education. Some programmers and accountants and radiologists, for example, find their jobs outsourced to distant countries. Plumbers, electricians and mechanics do not. The future indeed might be divided into jobs that have to be done here (making, mending and fixing) and those that can be outsourced to India.

Crawford also argues that there is more thinking and analysing going on in manual work:

“For me, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than in the think tank. Put differently, mechanical work has forced me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition”, which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. To be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken.

This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because a good mechanic internalises the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. Why else does he experience such elation when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

Of course, not every task as a mechanic ends in redemption. Moments of elation are counterbalanced with failures, and these, too, are vivid, taking place right before your eyes. With stakes that are often high and immediate, the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in one’s work. They are punctuated by moments of pleasure — and a keen awareness that catastrophe is an always-present possibility. The core experience is one of individual responsibility, supported by face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer. “

So far from looking down on manual work we should be trying to encourage and nourish it. I see my students applying to do mechanical engineering courses at college and I know they will be challenged and developed by the study they have to do, but really they would rather be mechanics and are only going to college because that option is restricted or closed off to them. I would love for them to become mechanics first and then go on to the technician courses.

But maybe we are getting more into the apprenticeship mode these days. Many of the colleges include work placement elements or cooperative education as part of their degrees and internships are valued and supported. I just wish there were more options for the keen practical youngsters who want to learn by doing. Can we not find a way of getting them to do the job and then do the degree? Can we not become more Germanic and expand the apprenticeship opportunities in a wider range of positions available to our youngsters.

Fred Tuite





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