Work-based learning: Adding relevance to the educational experience

The National Skills Council is committed to bringing the educational and employment sectors together to ensure that our citizens acquire the skills relevant to an increasingly dynamic economy and society

The National Skills Council was set up as an executive body earlier this year. A fundamental part of our remit is the promotion of skills which are relevant to today’s economic realities, together with the ever-important ‘transversal’ skills’ such as communication, teamwork and problem-solving.

The recent international trend of rediscovering work-based learning is being actively promoted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the European Commission. It is also a concept which the National Skills Council is firmly committed to promote in a bid to foster transversal skills in learners by means of different pedagogies, shifting away from purely, school-based learning and moving into a contextualised business orientated approach.  Work-based learning is becoming vital in helping to bridge the gap between education and employment, shaping a future workforce with the necessary employability skills.  Apart from that, the transversal skills acquired contribute to personal wellbeing, and allow us to fully participate in the society we live in.

What is Work-Based Learning?

Work-based learning is an instructional model that enhances classroom learning by connecting it to the workplace.  Through this method, classroom and workplace learning are aligned, whilst technical and employability skills are imparted to learners in a work setting. Support from classroom and workplace mentors is key to enriching this experience. Work-based learning can take the form of internships, apprenticeships, or job shadowing experiences, and it may also be undertaken in a simulated work environment such as in workshops or laboratories set up in vocational education and training institutions. Maltese students are privileged to have some excellent facilities available to them.

Work-based learning helps to address a particular challenge that many jobseekers face.  It may sometimes be difficult to get a job without previous work experience, and it’s difficult to get work experience without a job! In such education and training programmes, younger individuals and adults alike get the experience employers seek whilst gaining the skills and qualifications that are required by industry, enabling them to succeed in their careers of choice.

Benefits to Students and Workers

Work-based learning is a very effective modality for developing expertise and the kind of skills and competences that are relevant to a particular profession or a specific workplace. It facilitates a hands-on approach and gives the student the chance of ‘learning by doing’ -practicing and mastering skills in real-life situations, rather than simply through textbooks. Key competencies such as communication, teamwork and customer relations skills, and general competences such as project planning and problem-solving skills, are becoming increasingly more important in today’s labour market. This system provides an excellent opportunity for developing such skills through formal and informal interaction with colleagues, management and customers.  Individuals acquire a better understanding of the workplace culture.  Self-confidence, drive and motivation are also imbued. Smoother school-to-work transitions are guaranteed. What may start as an apprenticeship may eventually become permanent employment.

Benefits to Businesses and Employers

Employers will be presented with a better choice from a diverse talent pool. Apprenticeship experiences may serve as an induction for future employment, shaping future employees’ work ethic whilst addressing any skills gaps within an organisation. Companies have a vested interest in working with education and training institutions to design work-based learning programmes, so that they can ensure that the synergies created between the curriculum and on-the-job activities equip learners with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to be able to contribute as part of a team. Due to continued labour shortages and competition for the best talent, businesses also stand to gain by the resultant automatic reduction in staff turnover rates, since job satisfaction is obviously higher in such situations. All of this obviously comes at a price. This includes any wages or allowances paid to learners, expenses related to supervision and mentoring, tools and materials, and administration. However, numerous studies show that the returns from apprenticeships significantly outweigh training costs. The cost-benefit ratio is dependent on various factors such as the balance provided between general versus company-specific training, the duration of training initiatives, and the size of the company or sector.

For work-based learning modalities to be successful, it is vital that industry fulfils its role by offering the premises, expertise and resources necessary.

Work-Based Learning in Malta

This concept is not new to us. There have been many related initiatives in Malta’s educational history. These were commonly referred to as ‘student worker’ schemes. They were not always met with approval by those in favour of a more traditional academic approach.

The Maltese government is taking a number of initiatives aimed at enhancing the country's apprenticeship system which are primarily aimed at upskilling our workforce. One of the key initiatives that Malta has undertaken is the enactment of the Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship Act of 2018. This aims at regulating education providers and sponsors that provide Vocational Education and Training programmes. Furthermore, in November 2022, the Malta Further and Higher Education Authority published a Scoping Report with guidelines for quality assurance for courses that include a Work-Based Learning component. Work on the drafting of these Guidelines is ongoing and they are expected to be published later this year. These measures will help us attain the high standards needed to ensure quality and inclusive apprenticeship schemes, thus facilitating the concept of ‘parity of esteem’ between vocational and academic education.

As the job market continues to evolve and the demand for skilled workers grows, it is crucial that countries invest in apprenticeship programs that ensure that their workforce is equipped with the skills and knowledge necessary for us to succeed. Such programmes can only be successful if there is structured collaboration between government, industry, and education providers. The National Skills Council is committed to bringing the educational and employment sectors together to ensure that our citizens acquire the skills relevant to an increasingly dynamic economy and society.