Ops 4.0—The Human Factor: Apprenticeships today for skills tomorrow

Is your organization deploying innovative technologies as widely as it could? When we ask business leaders about their use of AI (including generative AI), IoT, digital twins, and a host of other new approaches across all kinds of operations, they point to the same constraint: shortages of critical skills.

Demand for problem-solving excellence and advanced technical expertise has grown significantly in recent years, and is set to grow even faster. The latest World Economic Forum report on the future of jobs finds that companies expect 44 percent of their workforce to require reskilling in the next five years. My colleagues estimate that in the US alone, 12 million occupational shifts may need to happen by 2030, on top of the 8.6 million that already occurred from 2019 through 2022. Key skill gaps include not only specialized technical skills, such as data analysis and programming, but also higher cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, and social and emotional skills, such as empathy.

In previous blog posts, we’ve talked about the implications of these trends for individuals, emphasizing the need for a “T-shaped” skills profile that combines a breadth of generally applicable skills with a deep spike of specific expertise. Now companies are wondering how they can best support their staff in developing those skills, especially in the all-important early years of a career.

For hundreds of years, most skilled people learned their trade through a process of apprenticeship. Working alongside a master of the craft, sometimes for many years, an apprentice would receive expert one-to-one coaching, and the opportunity to observe, learn, and practice new skills until they perfected them.

Today, the apprenticeship idea is enjoying a resurgence. Leading organizations are developing “excellence programs” in key areas, which give staff the opportunity the learn from expert colleagues, while working on the real projects that matter most to the business.

The key to these programs is ensuring that both learners and teachers benefit from them. That requires smart design. Successful excellence programs tend to share a few common characteristics.

  1. An emphasis on learning in the flow of work. By providing resources and learning experiences in the moment of need. That may also involve changes to team structures and processes, such as creating development opportunities for junior staff through participation in a broad range of projects, supported by expert colleagues.
  2. Extensive use of individual coaching and small group knowledge sharing. Here, one or two subject matter experts spend time with groups of five to ten learners, imparting knowledge through a combination of classroom teaching, role modeling, and support for specific tasks and projects.
  3. Appropriate incentives. Learners are recognized for the skills they acquire, and teachers for their role in imparting those skills. That can involve the award of formal credentials for mastering specific skills or spending time delivering high-quality teaching. Those credentials are publicly celebrated, and they feed into decisions about career progression.
  4. An enabling technical infrastructure. The right technology can make the acquisition and sharing of skills as seamless as possible. Key elements include systems to track learning and teaching activity and the award of credentials, catalogs of expertise to help learners find the right support and coaching, and digital learning tools that offer on-demand help when learners need it.

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