Apprenticeship reimagined: A modern twist on a classic approach

A modernized apprenticeship model could be just the learning & development boost your organization needs

Posted by Matt Stevens and David Dulin on May 22, 2019.

Apprenticeships are a rather ancient form of on-the-job training. With roots in the Middle Ages, they served as a way to develop young craftsmen, who provided labor for master craftsmen in exchange for room, board, and training. While some trades still offer apprenticeship programs, and one might argue that today’s internships are similar, an adapted, modernized apprenticeship model could go a long way to addressing the shortages in skilled labor and the need for workers to keep their skills current and relevant as the Future of Work evolves.

Having more jobs open than people available to fill them1 is an ongoing problem in the new economy. In the wake of ongoing digital disruption, 70 percent of CEOs surveyed say their organization does not have the skills to adapt.3 The half-life of a learned skill (such as a computer program) is only about five years,3 so upskilling and reskilling has to be continual, at every level of the organization. In the U.S., some 24 million frontline workers have little or no upward career mobility because they lack the skills to move into higher-level roles.4 And as Boomers retire, their years of knowledge and experience are also leaving the workforce.

At the same time, workers value learning. Nearly half (48 percent) of surveyed Millennials and 44 percent of Gen Z say opportunities for continuous learning are very important when choosing to work for an organization.5 There’s a talent retention component to this as well. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of those who plan to stay with their employers more than five years say their organizations are strong providers of education and training.6

So why aren’t organizations all over this? Frankly, they need to be. And an adapted apprenticeship model could be a viable solution.

Blending tried-and-true and new
Much of what makes the traditional apprenticeship model effective is very relevant to today’s workplaces, where the trend is for learning to be “in the flow.” For example, the traditional model gives learners constant exposure to experts as teachers. It uses a blended learning approach (classroom/textbook, on-the-job shadowing/observation, hands-on practice). It emphasizes practical application of what’s learned (vs. simply acquiring knowledge), and provides structured pathways to proficiency, including developmental milestones, such as progressing from “apprentice” to “journeyman” to “master.”

A downside to this traditional approach can be the time involved, potentially taking years to progress from beginner to master. But this path can be shortened—and the entire process enhanced—by taking advantage of current technologies and the natural way we already use them in the flow of our everyday lives.

For example, knowledge management tools and content curation can be used to make information readily available and easily digestible, similar to using our favorite search engine to bring up and watch an online video. Workplace social media tools can assist by increasing apprentices’ exposure to experts, facilitating crowdsourcing, and enabling peer-to-peer interaction as part of a cohort. Learning can also be brought to life—literally—by having learners work through actual problems or implement new ideas in their real-world environment vs. in a classroom or during a simulation.

Where to start? Lessons learned from a case in point
A health care organization is using an updated apprenticeship model to help its workforce build foundational expertise within its principal technology platform. Its CIO recognized a pending knowledge gap and potential risk in that many of the platform’s subject matter experts (SMEs) were nearing retirement. The organization needed a way to both capture the SMEs’ knowledge and accelerate the proficiency of others to support the platform going forward. Its multipronged approach offers several takeaways for others looking to boost their learning and development efforts.

    • Gain leadership consensus on the skills you want to build: Senior leaders initially had different ideas about how they thought the technology platform would be used in the future and what knowledge and skills constituted foundational expertise. Aligning leaders across a dozen technical work areas was a critical part of the process.

Expanded takeaway: Organizations should be clear on skills needed for the future, communicate that understanding downward, provide clear pathways for employees to pursue/capitalize on, and change/redefine/repurpose job descriptions and work structures accordingly.

    • Ensure knowledge management content and processes are up to the task: The project exposed gaps in organizational processes for documenting SMEs’ knowledge, inconsistencies in how documentation was created, and the need for procedures to keep content up to date—all of which the organization has begun to address.

Expanded takeaway: Organizations should actively invest in knowledge curation/management to ensure learning content not only reflects the preferred way of working (for example, the recommended or even regulated way a certain procedure should be done) but is also readily available, digestible, and digital.

    • Increase learners’ access to learning via both people and resources: While current SMEs had gained their expertise over many years, often working under a master/mentor, the new approach expands that pool. Learners work with multiple masters concurrently to increase their exposure to different levels of knowledge and skill sets. They can crowdsource within a network of experts, tap into social channels for peer-to-peer interaction, and seek out SME guidance, whether for mentoring or help with specific problems or needs.

Expanded takeaway: Organizations should encourage continual, low-cost, and fluid learning activities between apprentices, their peers, and experts, striving to minimally disrupt day-to-day operations. Tactics such as job shadowing, lunch-and-learns, streamlined trainings, informal sit-downs, networking events, and even strategic arrangement of project teams can all facilitate and accelerate learning.

    • Recognize accomplishments: Underlying and supporting this new approach to learning is the fact that both teachers and learners are being recognized in the organization. Teachers appreciate being acknowledged as SMEs and knowing they are part of a new approach to help the organization on a broader scale. Learners appreciate that the company is investing in their learning, keeping them engaged in their work, and staying open to new approaches, such as providing access to social collaboration.

Expanded takeaway: Organizations should decide how to recognize and reward participants. This could include establishing levels of mastery and acknowledging learners’ progression, and providing space, freedom, and opportunity for employees to pursue their learning interests (as they relate to the organization’s strategic direction) both during and outside the workday.

On trend and on target
Eighty-six percent of survey respondents cited reinventing the way people learn as important or very important, making it the No. 1 Global Human Capital Trend for 2019. But only 10 percent of respondents say their organization is “very ready” to address it. To bridge this gap, organizations can take a strong cue from the past, combining the best of yesterday’s hands-on apprenticeship approach with the best of today’s technology capabilities and learning methodologies to accelerate learning and sustain it in the flow of work and life.

Matt Stevens is a learning specialist leader in the Human Capital Organization Transformation & Talent practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP, where he helps organizations in a wide range of industries define and implement talent development strategies.

David Dulin is a human capital analyst at Deloitte Consulting LLP, helping organizations integrate learning solutions into the flow of work.


1 Jeffry Bartash, “U.S. job openings hit a record 7.1 million, exceed number of unemployed Americans,” MarketWatch, published October 16, 2018.
2 Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, and Natasha Buckley, Aligning the organization for its digital future, MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte University Press, July 25, 2016.
3 Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning; Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, CreateSpace, January 4, 2011.
4 A Guide to Upskiling America’s Frontline Workers: A Handbook for Employers, Deloitte in collaboration with the Aspen Institute, 2015.
5 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey: Millennials disappointed in business, unprepared for Industry 4.0.
6 Ibid.

Leave a Reply