Last reviewed 9 August 2017

One of the more successful innovations, particularly in corporate organisations, has been the introduction of apprenticeships. Work-based learning (WBL) and apprenticeships go hand-in-hand, and both are responsible for boosting workforce skills. Judith Christian-Carter considers what can be learned from apprenticeships in terms of developing the successful workforce of the future.

The recent introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy has met with a mixed response from organisations. Many see the levy as just another tax and financial liability, and struggle to see how it can be turned into an asset. Those organisations that value the development of adaptability and agility, and are serious about becoming a “new learning organisation”, also need to understand how to ensure a high-performing workforce through WBL. This is where lessons learned from apprenticeships can be applied.

The importance of work-based learning

WBL allows organisations to develop a more qualified workforce that is aligned to its future strategy. “Work-based learning (WBL) is often seen as a powerful vehicle for developing workplace skills and promoting productivity of the labour force. Realising the potential of work-based learning requires firms and trainees to engage in work-based learning that effectively increases productivity. Understanding the dynamics of the costs and benefits of WBL and ensuring that those are reflected in the design of WBL schemes is essential to ensure that firms provide high-quality WBL and trainees perceive WBL as an attractive career option.” (OECD Website, 2016)

Essentially, WBL can include:

  • work experience

  • internship

  • mentoring

  • apprenticeships

  • co-operative partnership

  • work shadowing

  • work placement.

Towards Maturity, which supports learning and development (L&D) professionals, states that WBL is a “knowledge-to-competency strategy that provides learners with real-life work-related experiences where they can apply behavioural and professional skills and develop their employability”. Apprenticeships are a key component of WBL.


Recent research by Towards Maturity has led to some interesting findings about the personality characteristics of apprentices, who can be at any age or stage of their career. Today’s apprentices are generally resourceful, self-directed, motivated and digitally confident. They want to get on with their career, their current job and their colleagues. They also like to learn. They look for support from their manager, their mentor, their colleagues and peers, and regard building an effective internal network to be an essential part of how they operate.

This means that apprentices are ideally positioned to benefit from and to be successful when undertaking WBL. In fact, they reflect all the attributes of modern-day learners, in that they are at home with social and collaborative learning, do not rely on formal courses and events, are self-directed when it comes to their learning and are adept at using technology to assist them.

So, what are the benefits and challenges of apprenticeships to organisations, for both employers, and L&D professionals alike?


Employers are choosing apprenticeships for the following eight reasons.

  1. To mitigate a number of their future talent risks, and grow the knowledge and competence of their existing managers/L&D teams and workforce.

  2. To add significant value, diversity and professionalism to the talent pool.

  3. To increase brand value, social and responsibility targets and attract a more diverse and qualified workforce.

  4. To fill a job role. Apprenticeships are developed skill-wise to do the jobs that need doing, thereby helping to address talent shortages and fill skills gaps.

  5. So that learning and the demonstration of competence are taking place on the job, which reduces disruption to the workflow of other forms of learning (eg classroom-based courses) and ensures maximum impact.

  6. If set up well, apprenticeships can include many dividends, such as an increase in social mobility, a more diverse and inclusive workforce, higher levels of engagement, loyalty and improved turnover rates.

  7. To set up mutually beneficial partnerships with schools, further education, and relevant institutes in order to have input into the careers arena.

  8. For those who are under 25 years of age, specific talent paths can be part-funded by the Apprenticeship Levy and there is no employer National Insurance contribution.

However, recent changes in the structure and funding for apprenticeships have caught some employers unawares. The new Apprenticeship Levy, which kicks in for organisations with a payroll of more than £3 million, has led to some large employers failing to embrace the changes and to consider how apprentices can contribute to their workforce. In addition, there are then the barriers for those who manage apprentices, such as running the scheme, line manager capability, slow approval of relevant standards and HR/L&D awareness and capability.

L&D professionals

The key for L&D professionals is to look to the longer-term opportunities of how apprenticeships today can add value to a modern learning strategy. They need to focus on how they will support apprentices and blend their off-the-job training into new, technology-enabled workplace learning.

It is apparent from an L&D Leaders Focus Group, held in February 2017, that many are simply not ready for new apprenticeships and the changes that came into place in April/May 2017, in particular seeing how they fit into their current learning strategies. In addition, their perception of apprentices in the workplace can also be quite outdated, evoking negative emotions, not understanding what apprentices are and could be within their organisation. This perception, in turn, leads to apprentices feeling undervalued in the organisation.

There are many steps that L&D professionals can take to make sure that learning and work are integrated. The first step is to ensure that apprentices have authentic and relevant learning experiences by providing them with real-world situations. Next, real work activities need to be embedded in their learning to help them translate formal learning into practical action. L&D must also play its part in building confident and successful apprentices/learners by demonstrating the value of learning across the organisation. Finally, as learning is all about outcomes, L&D has a major role to play in ensuring its activities are evaluated to demonstrate their wider impact on the organisation and its results.

Lessons learned

Setting aside the current uncertainties surrounding apprenticeships, it is clear that they are going to be around for some time to come. The four general lessons to emerge for organisations are as follows.

  1. Balance the needs of the business and the individual.

  2. Help today’s self-directed learners to help themselves.

  3. Integrate learning and work to improve the learner’s journey.

  4. Build a learning culture in which learning is an organisation-wide responsibility.

Not only are all of the above essential for successful apprenticeship programmes, they apply equally to WBL in general.

Further information

The Work-Based Learning Dividend: Learning from the Apprenticeship Model, In-Focus Report, Towards Maturity, 2017

Judith Christian-Carter is a Director of Effective Learning Solutions Ltd