Is it time for apprenticeships to go digital?

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The pandemic has accelerated digital approaches across the industry, but will the apprenticeship of the future be digital too?

The motor industry is Britain’s traditional heartland of vocational training. Apprenticeships in this vital sector are hands-on, but the supervision and practical demonstration the training thrives on have been made problematic by the coronavirus pandemic.

The training has largely been shifted online because of social distancing rules and local lockdowns. While there are benefits to remote apprenticeships, there are also plenty of pitfalls that employers will need to navigate.

Training provider Calibre Group Solutions had already digitised some content before COVID-19 struck, but the crisis has accelerated this process. Managing Director, Sabina Hegarty, says the online format has broadened the pool of potential recruits for motor industry employers, adding that remote apprenticeships are a better fit with this younger generation of digital natives. “We have to adapt the learning to the leaner of today. There’s no point in teaching using outdated methods. The people we are teaching today have basically been born with digital brains. We have raised engagement through remote training,” she says.

Such sessions have also lessened time demands on senior managers who would otherwise have to commute sometimes vast distances to assessment centers, so technology raises the productivity and efficiency of the training process.

The downside to digitisation though, is that it can be quite solitary and may impact negatively on mental health and wellbeing because it blurs the boundary between work and home. “We have had to build a wellbeing programme into our apprenticeship training that focuses on both body and mind,” says Hegarty.

Young apprentices also may miss out on crucial time with mentors and managers, whose guidance is essential for advancing in an organisation. “A youngster that doesn’t know their arse from their elbow, just starting out on site, needs guidance,” she says.

Mark Armitage, Head of Membership Products and Services at the IMI, says employers should encourage apprentices to engage with each other via online forums and social media groups, where best practice, tips along with technical support is offered.
“Digital technology can be a distraction, but it can also be a very powerful tool to engage people, find quicker and better ways of working, improve customer service and sales, whilst also improving staff motivation and retention,” he says.

While remote sessions have their upsides, Hegarty says it’s not possible to recreate a physical classroom experience, which is more interactive and where closer bonds are often formed. “You definitely lose something in the digital world. It’s like saying can you have a birthday party remotely? You can, but it’s not the bloody same. And it’s not fun.”

That is a sentiment echoed by Dean Lander, Head of Repair Sector Services at Thatcham Research, who says: “We have tried for the past six months to replicate the physical classroom online. But the immersive experience an apprentice gets from being inside the facility with all the equipment, the guidance from a technical instructor, can’t be replicated online.”  

He sees the future as being a hybrid blend of bricks and clicks. “It’s about an omni-channel approach; online learning mixed with practical sessions. We will combine the best of both worlds.”

Find out more about apprenticeships, whether they’re the path for you and how the IMI can help