What we are learning from the digital sector, international organisations, intermediaries, employers and governments. Examples from the UK, Australia, Switzerland, and Kenya.
(Graduates of the first ever apprenticeship programme in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where women overcame cultural barriers to participate in the hotel industry. )
The impact of COVID-19 on the workplace is massive. The social, economic and health challenges faced are unprecedented. In our efforts to explore how COVID-19 is specifically impacting training and development of employees and work-based learning (WBL) programmes, the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) recently joined forces in a webinar, bringing together the following GAN member companies, partners and networks to understand how businesses, governments, intermediaries and international organisations are adapting to this massive and sudden disruption to workforces:
- Anna Morrison CBE, Director, Amazing Apprenticeships, UK
- Nik Mavrommatis, General Manager, GAN Australia
- Gary Workman, Executive Director, GAN Australia
- Ashwani Aggarwal, Senior Skills and Employability Specialist, ILO
- Nicholas Ouma, Senior Youth Advisor, African Union (AU) Commission
- Thomas D. Meyer, Senior Advisor, Accenture Switzerland
- Matthias Thorns, Deputy Secretary-General, International Organisation of Employers (IOE)
- Nazrene Mannie, GAN Executive Director — Moderator
Before COVID-19, countries and companies had already been grappling with how to adapt to the rapid transformation in the Future of Work. As the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work points out, in its report “Work for a brighter future”, a human-centred agenda is needed to guarantee such a future — which includes supporting all types of transitions, whether it is school-to-work pathways or work-to-work transitions through upskilling and reskilling programmes. As the worst global crisis since WWII, COVID-19 has recently brought about the most massive disruption in workplaces, bringing the Future of Work right to our doorsteps, impacting every industry across the globe, and 80% of workers, according to the ILO. How apprentices and trainees are being impacted by COVID-19 varies greatly depending on the sector and country, with there being inevitably some losses and some opportunities.
COVID-19 has increased demand for workers in sectors such as healthcare, retail and agro-industry, meaning that there may be more opportunities for some apprentices and trainees in these sectors to experience on-the-job training and even swifter on-boarding processes. However, in the hospitality, tourism, manufacturing, and in the informal economy, apprentices, trainees and vulnerable groups are especially disadvantaged and may be more likely to face job insecurity or loss of learning opportunities as a result of COVID-19. There are also vast country to country and regional differences on how these sectors, and WBL opportunities are being impacted.
We took away a few key trends based on this discussion:
WBL in all countries is being impacted, but not in a uniform manner. And aside from the need for adapting to the sudden transition, there is concern about the continuity of apprenticeships, traineeships and other WBL programs. As the school year ends, with many countries still on lock-down, new contracts are not arising, while schools and workplaces are closed.
The International Organisation of Employers (IOE) gave examples of how employers at the local level are coming up with innovative ways to ensure that exams and certification are still being organised, and through schemes such as pool sharing, so that apprentices can complement and finish their training with other employers. At the national level, employer federations are examining the bigger picture to encourage systems that are more flexible, agile and mobile for employers.
To minimise labour market disruptions and ensure the continuity of apprenticeships, the ILO Skills and Employability Branch recommends that governments put in place measures through social dialogue and involve youth at the centre of long-term strategies. With more than 20% of its population, classified as youth in Kenya, and a high degree of informality, the African Union (AU) also stressed the importance of engaging young people at the forefront.
Experience has shown the IOE that bringing in social partners can improve agility, which is needed in this context, more than ever. One example is a call to action by the IOE and ITUC the (International Trade Union Confederation) for finance and labour ministers to adopt rapid response measures so both employers and workers are protected from economic and labour shocks. The IOE is also working on research with Deloitte on the skills needed for the Future of Work which will act as a guideline to its members in terms of identifying key trends and needs towards closing the skills and jobs mismatch.
These examples show that a whole of society approach is needed to tackle the implications that COVID-19 will have on workforces and consequently, delivery of WBL programmes and staff training and development. On reducing inequalities, the ILO Skills and Employability Branch highlighted the importance of countries to work with local communities and NGOs as part of a strategy to raise awareness for government incentives for promoting inclusiveness.
On a global level, the good news is that there are already policy recommendations put in place by the G20 to promote quality apprenticeships with clear priorities to better align skills demand and supply. And the IOE pointed out that the ILO has set forth policy actions for governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations on formalising the informal sector. This crisis shows us that we can encourage governments to better implement frameworks that have already been set in place. The crisis has also provided evidence of the capacity of some governments being to drive quick and effective policy solutions and aligned implementation measures.
In the UK, apprenticeships have both on and off the job components. The government has allowed some flexibility for completion of apprenticeship programs while on lock-down by increasing the proportion of off-the-job components. Amazing Apprenticeships in the UK gave examples of how training providers and employers are maintaining motivation levels of apprentices working from home. For example, regular communication both individually and in groups has encouraged apprentices to stay connected to a wider network.
However, there is more concern for apprentices who just started and may need more connection to their programmes and employers. Another concern in the UK, as with many other countries, is the mental health and well-being of apprentices. Examples were given of how training providing staff are being equipped with strategies, ideas and the confidence to have delicate conversations with apprentices and trainees.
On policy recommendations, Amazing Apprenticeships provided a model example of thought leaders coming together, represented by around fifty national organisations, breaking into working groups on various issues including on how to retain young people and other vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities, in the workforce. Each working group brings in members with expertise and experience learned from previous recessions. Their recommendations will then go to government to influence policy change.
The African Union (AU) referred to the skills development ecosystem as being a top priority in most African countries, long before the onset of COVID-19. This approach is aligned to Agenda 2063, a 50 year plan for the continent to align to the SDGs and beyond. The discussion on skills continues and they have been working on a skills anticipation study with the ILO and programmes, including an African continental skilling framework. Most African countries are already on a trajectory towards strengthening skills development systems and this crisis should not avert them from continuing.
The ILO noted many countries have made significant efforts to revive apprenticeships, but COVID-19 is causing much damage to these hard-earned gains and breaking the momentum. Apprentices are sometimes the first to go when activities slow down. They are more at risk of income loss, as well as foregone learning opportunities that could have led to a decent job. Therefore, policy measures to protect workers during the crisis should have provisions for apprentices and trainees. These may include wage subsidies, payments for social security contributions, and tax deductions for employers.
Government relief packages are helping. GAN Australia gave an example of government stimulus packages to enhance employer incentives to maintain apprentices. This includes generous wage subsidies offered for apprentices, and other flexible mechanisms that allow apprentices to rotate to other employers, where there might be more need in another industry or if the fit between the company and apprentice is not ideal. This is allowed as apprentices are employed by Group Training Organizations (GTOs) who are the legal employers. To decrease impact on the most vulnerable groups such as youth, indigenous people, and women, GAN Australia proposed quotas as part of government spending, giving an example from the past that has worked — a 10% requirement for indigenous groups and women in trade.
Sectors where working from home is already the norm, are less impacted. In the services sector, the impact of COVID-19 is less evident. Apprentices working for Accenture in Switzerland for example, have both a classroom and workplace setting. While schools are closed, there is the option of home schooling, however, work contracts were slightly adapted to allow apprentices to work from home in some sectors.
Working from home will also require new skills to adapt to the technology and infrastructure needed outside of the workplace. This crisis has shown us that digital skilling should be a top priority in both schools and the workplace. This presents an opportunity for governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations to collaborate more strongly to ensure that digital skills are up to date with current and future needs and that future training programs have an online component or allow for remote supervision.
Mr Meyer of Accenture Switzerland pointed out that digital infrastructure is a major factor on how well countries will be able to adapt to working from home. Enhancing access to sustainable and reliable bandwidth, hardware and software infrastructure can help with easing inequalities.
However, the ILO gave examples of other countries with various levels of institutional capacity, lack of infrastructure, and where digital channels are not the norm. The ILO emphasized the importance of multi-channel strategies combining high-, low- and no-tech solutions such as e-learning, massive open online courses (MOOCs), web and telephone conferencing, mobile apps, online platforms, radio and television for learning and training, so that the digital divide does not further accentuate the skills development between the haves and have nots. The AU backed this strategy with examples from Kenya where radio and TV are widely used for advocacy efforts, as digital technology has not yet reached all areas.
This thought piece is part of a series of GAN hosted COVID-19 and WBL webinars. The aim is to bring together GAN Members, Partners and Networks to assess the impact of COVID-19 on the delivery of WBL and how it impacts various groups. The webinars are virtual peer-to-peer learning opportunities bringing in different perspectives from companies, industries, civil society, countries and international organisations. The next webinars will be on youth voices, and on digital skilling. You can access the recording and slides below:
 The ILO has been carrying out regular assessment of the global impact of COVID-19 on economies and labour markets, and putting forward policy recommendations for lessening its effects and aiding a fast recovery. The second edition of COVID-19 and the World of Work can be accessed from https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_740877.pdf