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April 25, 2018

Why do an apprenticeship? Vocational training pros and cons, and why Confucius encouraged the practice

Last year, Hong Kong’s Vocational Training Council (VTC) urged local companies to take on more apprentices to support a drive to promote vocational training among young people.

An apprenticeship is essentially training on the job – “learning and earning” as it were. In some countries they are very highly regarded.

Switzerland, for example, which has one of Europe’s lowest youth unemployment rates, has a long history of combining classroom learning with on-the-job experience and two-thirds of students opt for such vocational training. It is clearly a system that works well for the Swiss, an affluent country with a labour market the World Economic Forum described last year as “the best functioning globally”.

However, apprenticeships are not viewed so positively everywhere in the world. Both the UK and the US, for example, place more emphasis on education than vocation.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have a long history of apprenticeships. This is founded on words from Confucius that are quoted on many Chinese apprenticeship websites, with the meaning: “If you memorise knowledge only, no matter how much you learn, what practical use is it if you cannot adequately perform tasks?”

According to numbers from China’s Ministry of Education, out of 16 million students admitted into upper secondary schools in 2013, 7.5 million entered vocational education schools. The country, however, needs to work to sustain its centuries-old practice, which is suffering from contemporary apathy: including a lack of incentives for businesses and insufficient links between industry and education.

Social hang-ups about apprenticeships also abound. Students are reluctant to enrol as an apprentice for fear of being considered less worthy than graduates, and employers often consider applicants who have come via the apprenticeship route less able than graduates.

Catherine Yan Wang, director of the department for international exchange at China’s National Institute of Education Sciences, has published studies on apprenticeships in the region. She also concluded that companies were reluctant to take on students from vocational schools because they were viewed as less up to the task than graduates.

Hong Kong’s VTC helps local employers provide structured, on-the-job training, and supports apprentices in studying vocational education programmes.

“Our ‘Earn and Learn Scheme’ integrates structured classroom learning with on-the-job training, providing young people with a clear career progression pathway, and preparing them to join the trades and industries with greatest manpower demand,” a VTC spokesman says.

“One of the distinctive features of the Earn and Learn Scheme is that the government and the participating industries provide an allowance. Participants can earn a steady income while acquiring knowledge and developing skills.”

Modelled on successful Swiss practises, the scheme is a collaborative effort between the government, industry and the VTC. It covers various industries, including electrical and mechanical engineering, construction, and automobile and retail.

But even with the best will in the world, “there remains entrenched a bias among some in the community in favour of traditional academic pursuits,” the VTC observes.

In a bid to counter this, the VTC established a task force to promote the value of vocational education, demonstrate that it is “an attractive pathway” to a career and “help tackle the entrenched perception that a vocational training is a second choice”.

But the responsibility for recognizing the value of apprenticeships does not lie with governments and industry alone. Schools and parents also have a responsibility to educate children on the other career-development options available.

One Hong Kong mother described how her son’s less-than-glowing secondary school results meant an elite university was out of the question. She sought advice from an independent professional association – the Institution of Civil Engineers – who told her that her son would be much better served by a good apprenticeship than a degree at a university that might not be especially well funded.

There are also the economics to consider. Research by the US Department of Labour states that apprentices who complete their programme earn roughly US$300,000 more over the course of their careers than non-degree, non-apprenticeship workers. Neither will they rack up thousands of dollars in student debt by putting themselves through university.

Apprenticeships can be enormously valuable on many levels. To take positive root and flourish, however, they need to be viewed with fresh eyes for the practical, engaging, work-ethic-creating disciplines that they are.

The pros and cons of opting for an apprenticeship
THE PROS

Experience: You will get hands-on training from the moment you begin, meaning you’ll be ahead of university graduates who arrive several years later with plenty of academic knowledge but very little, or no, on-the-ground know-how.

Mentoring: You will likely shadow a more senior employee which is a great opportunity to learn the business, ask specific questions and observe how to develop positive relationships at work.

Finances: You will be paid a salary from day one, rather than accumulating considerable student debt over the course of a degree.

Confidence: On completing an apprenticeship, many young people have far more confidence than university graduates just starting out thanks to comprehensive practical experience of the industry they are in and a good understanding of dynamics on the ground.

THE CONS

Options: An apprenticeship isn’t going to get you into every career. A degree is still essential for certain careers, particularly in areas such as medicine and science.

Social life: You won’t experience university life and all that it entails which, aside from the stress of exams and essays, is often much easier than they daily work grind. As an apprentice, if you party too hard, too late, you will still be expected to be up and at work the next morning – there’s no skiving off lectures with a hangover.

Snobbishness: Some people will assume your grades were not good enough to get into university and you had no choice but to enter an apprenticeship scheme.

Short holidays: You won’t be getting those long university breaks that undergraduates enjoy (but when you do go on holiday, you’ll have money to spend).

Time: It can take longer to achieve the same grade of qualification as an apprentice than taking a degree course.

Flexibility: University affords the option to change tack – if you hate your course after year one, chances are you can switch to another. Apprenticeships are a lot less flexible.

Inequality: Just as some degrees are inferior to others and some universities less well resourced, some apprenticeships are less well supported and less well paid than others. Do your homework.

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