8 September 2017

If you have read a recent article on apprenticeships there’s a good chance you will come across the phrase ‘bridging the skills gap’. The skills gap is defined as ‘a significant gap between an organisation’s current capabilities and the skills it needs to achieve its goals’ according to the world’s largest skills development company Association for Talent Development (ATD).

Tech Product Change Manager at QA Apprenticeships, Chiraag Swaly, takes us through the value that developing mastery can offer in the way of a remedy to the skills gaps businesses face in 2017, and how apprenticeships could be a way to achieve this.

“I am interested in non-fiction which centres on success and mastery, which I find helpful in my role developing apprenticeship programmes at QA. Mastery is one of the design principles we follow to make sure all our programmes deliver great training and develop ‘mastery’ of core job-specific skills.

Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ is a personal favourite of mine; in it Gladwell presents the 10,000-hour rule. Suggesting that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to achieve expert level competence in practically anything.

Gladwell gives the example of how Bill Gates, aged 15, would sneak out of bed and walk to the University of Washington to access computers in the dead of night so he could program. This is how he racked up the amount of hours he got practicing on a computer. His access to this resource and the amount of time he put in gave him the skills which formed the foundations to his success.

Gladwell also refers to The Beatles and Mozart, attributing their successes to the sheer amount of practice hours they had under their belt.

Filling The Gap vs. Mastery

Acknowledging the skills gap and taking into consideration Gladwell’s rule, how do organisations address the pressing need the former brings and yet enable individuals to work towards those elusive 10,000 hours for mastery?

Most employers will look to remedy this by engaging individuals with a course. Courses are undeniably a brilliant way of refreshing skills and learning something new. But a short course will not translate to enabling the application of skills long-term. And what about those individuals that the employer is yet to uncover?

Building a skill requires time, effort and practice. Apprenticeships by design consider that there is a need for time to be put in. It is not just about attending classroom events, it is about practicing and applying those skills in context. The 20% off the job learning requirement is an excellent example of this.

There are many other books I love, some of which are best sellers that either reference the 10,000-hour rule or talk about consistent practice. Mastery – by Robert Greene, Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle, Mindset by Carole Dweck, So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport and Peak by Anders Ericsson to name but a few.

While they don’t all agree that 10,000 hours is the magic number for mastery, they all discuss having a robust practice mechanism being essential for successfully working towards mastering a skill.

An Alternative Perspective

In Peak, Ericsson talks about three types of practice, Naïve, Purposeful and Deliberate, Ericsson defines these as:

Naive Practice – Doing the same thing over and over

Purposeful Practice – Practice with well-defined, specific goals. It is focused, involves feedback and importantly, challenges you to get out of your comfort zone

Deliberate practice – This is purposeful practice plus having dedicated time from a teacher who is working with you every step of the way to ensure you gain mastery

Ericsson doesn’t think that 10,000 hours is the ‘magic formula’ but instead proposes that it is purposeful and deliberate practice which transforms skills and performance.The author’s thesis intonates that doing something again and again does not lead to improvement and adaptability. It is not the repetition that makes the difference, it is the approach to the repetition.

While it is not always feasible to have deliberate practice, having purposeful practice becomes very important to start developing expertise and gaining solid skills.

Despite Ericsson bucking the trend of buying in to the 10,000-hour rule he still maintains that a focused approach, similar to the one presented by Gladwell is crucial for development.

From Experience

I meet many learners who started on QA Level 3 IT apprenticeships and are now undertaking a QA Degree Apprenticeship. These learners have invested a great amount in progressing through these programmes, and they and their employers see the value through the skills they are developing through practice. You can see how these individuals have progressed in their careers and truly appreciate the cycle of learning they are part of to build their skills and develop ‘mastery’.

This is why at QA; we design our programmes to allow for this. We have a support structure for apprentices to support both purposeful and deliberate practice. Expert Tutors in the classroom dedicate time to teach learners a particular skill. Each learner also has a dedicated Skills Coach to set structured goals throughout the apprenticeship, provide feedback and ensure apprentices practice their skills in the workplace.

Whether you subscribe to the 10,000 hour rule or not, what is clear is that having an apprenticeship that provides you with a mechanism to embed purposeful practice, support you with a world class curriculum and engage learners will help transform your talent to the next level. Apprenticeships are an innovative way to provide valuable skills to organisations looking to bridge the skills gap in an abundance of sectors.”