SkillingNow Podcast: Episode 1

In this episode of the SkillingNow Podcast, Jean Milligan speaks with Professor Erica Smith about building lifelong learning habits.

Coming up this month, we have some exciting events lined up for you. Our GAN Network in Costa Rica focus week will commence on May 27th until June 3rd with the release of a new publication, a video campaign and online webinars open for the public. Stay tuned for our next episode of this podcast (in Spanish) with the participation of 2 fantastic guests all the way from San Jose in Costa Rica, Liz Brenes and Priscila Chaves. And if you are curious about SkillingNow please visit our webpage

In this episode of the SkillingNow Podcast, Jean Milligan speaks with Professor Erica Smith about building lifelong learning habits…



JM: From GAN in Geneva this is the first episode of the SkillingNow podcast. My name is Jean Milligan, I am the Director of Communications at the IOE and I am delighted to be part of this first podcast. On this episode I am speaking with Prof. Erica Smith, a highly regarded Australian vocational education and training specialist and we are going to be talking about building lifelong learning habits, so welcome home Erica, thank you.


ES: Thank you.


JM: Thank you for being here with us in Geneva, I know that you just arrived recently from Australia, so it is an honor that you have come here first.  So, I’d like to begin by asking you how and when do young people begin and start learning at work? When does that process start?


ES: I think it varies in different countries but for most young people start well before they leave school. So I guess for some young people it happens in the family business, they may have been working in their parents’ shop or café or whatever sort of business their parents have many years before they leave school and most young people in many countries are doing actual paid work well before they leave school which could be in the informal economy or it could be formal work. So for example, in Australia and I think in other developed countries, that informal work could start off as babysitting or it could be doing a newspaper round and so on, and then that gradually moves into more formal work where they may be working in the hospitality industry or in retail typically. And of course, that will vary in other countries at different stages of development.


JM: Ok. And how does student part-time work help young people to learn about work and, more importantly, build the lifelong habits of learning through work? I mean this is the moment where the foundation is laid. How does that happen?


ES: I think often the learning that young people do when they are working part-time before they leave school, is a little bit discounted but in fact because that is the foundation of their working lives, they are learning all the important habits of employability skills, turning up to work, how to deal with people in authority, how to deal with customers, very importantly, how to deal with work colleagues as well as technical skills. For example, typical part-time job in many countries will be working for Mc Donald’s and it’s often said that when an employer is looking at the CV of somebody who has left school, if they work at Mc Donald’s that’s a big point in their favor because they have learnt all of those employability skills in a well-respected employer. So, when I’ve interviewed young people about their part-time work, I’ve undertaken several projects in this area, I’ve also found that they are learning other things. They are learning how power structures happen within companies, how…it’s a little bit complicated… but I’ll give you one example ok? So, I followed through, I undertook a project where I followed 12 young people through their first year of full-time work and found they have all worked part-time before, which is what interested me in this area of research. There was one young lady for example who’d worked in a café in a small country town and because of the nature of the business she was left in charge so she was dealing with all the customer issues, managing the food, food and hygiene so on, so that was one example. Another really interesting example was a young man who worked in a major hotel in a capital city,  and what he found really interesting was in that hotel the different cultural groups within the hotel the different works they were assigned to them, so for example the people who cleaned rooms were all from a particular ethnic background, the people who did other sorts of work were from another ethnic background, so he was really learning about the power relationships within a workplace. I had a very different conversation with that young man than I did with the other, but both really did important things to learn about work and also, that’s the young man, what happens when you are a little bit naughty at work, so he worked in the bar and he was having late night sessions with some of the customers, he got into trouble for that  and realized you don’t do that sort of thing at work. So many of those important lessons about how to act at work these young people were learning before they actually started what some people will see as their working lives after they left school.

JM: Ok and do you think…I mean there’s always this lot of talk about the high unemployment rate, the high youth unemployment rate in Western Europe, and in many countries in the world. Do you think we have a generation of young people who are not accessing part-time work during their studies to get learned this work-culture skills, work-culture knowledge and behavior?


ES: It’s really hard to tell because different countries measure youth unemployment in different ways. I know that, just taking Australia as an example, there is a belief that youth unemployment is high and yet when we surveyed young people about whether they worked while they were at school, they almost all said yes, they have. So, it could be that their work isn’t formal enough to be captured in unemployment figures. It could be that they don’t count work that they have done within family businesses and that could be the case in countries with high formal youth unemployment rates. The young people are actually working but it’s not in the formal economy or maybe it’s sporadic; they might work somewhere for a few weeks and then not work. It’s very much dependent on how that learning, or rather how the employment statistics capture young people.


JM: Can you tell me are work experience programmes and work placement, while at school, effective in setting patterns for learning through work?


ES: I always divide those sort of activities into two; the first is the work experience that’s many countries have where the young people…there is an assumption that the young people haven’t worked before and not working and don’t know much about work so they’re just sent out to an employer who is willing to take them to supposedly assist them to gain some work habits, so that’s ok ,but probably more useful is the actual targeted work placement that are associated with students studying vocational education subjects at school. So, for example they may be learning hospitality while they are still at school and they are going to work placements in a hospitality workplace. So it sort of depends what is the school is expecting young people to get out of those placements and also how well they’ve worked with the employers to make sure that the young people get the experiences that they need, but clearly, it’s better to have some work experience arise through the school than not. I did one research project where I compared the learning from work experience than one where it’s not particularly targeted to a particular vocation with the learning from work placements where it was targeted towards an occupation that they were studying a qualification related to it. Then part-time working that was associated with what in Australia we call school based apprenticeships where people are still enrolled in regular secondary schooling but they are also doing a part-time apprenticeship;  and I found that the learning on every measure went up from work experience to work placements to school based apprenticeships, partly I think because there was more purposeful learning -that the young people knew they were supposed to be learning - but also because it was much more structured. But, on the other hand, a very important point, that some young people didn’t really have the chance to work part-time because of various family situations and socio-economic disadvantage and the fact that in their families there weren’t such traditions of working so they didn’t think of getting a part-time job. And also, because they may be from a particular ethnic background that employers are a bit nervous about, so for those young people anything that was arranged by the school was really, really helpful because they weren’t going to get that experience otherwise.


JM: I like this notion of purpose for learning. I think that that’s sort of the key to success. And also, I understand that key to success is the good communication between the student, the employer and the school and that expectations are shared, and everybody has sort of the same. And in that mind, can you tell me how schools and employers can make the programme more effective?


ES: Well I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, with communication and expectations, so if you think about that sort of spectrum,  I just explained from the work experience through the work placement to the school based apprenticeship, every one of those is more structured  and there is more formality around it so if it’s part of an actual course that the young people studying then there will be clearly learning outcomes articulated  and the students will be probably be doing some sort of activity where they work as well as just being at work, and with the apprenticeship even more so. So, I think giving young people something to do, an assignment if you like, that’s part of their work, does make them more targeted and focused. If they are just told to go to a workplace and turn up and learn about work for a week, they’re probably not going to learn very much. The employers typically say, and I’ve found this in my research and I know others have as well, they don’t really know what to do with the young people so they should be given some sort of curriculum as well as to what they may do with the young people. It wouldn’t be actually very difficult to organize those things, but seemingly it’s still not happening in many places for some reason.


JM: Yes, it seems it’s like the learning already begins by putting in the formal structure before they get started in terms of explaining learning outcomes, explaining terms of references. So, learning already begins before they even start the first day at work, it is an important piece of information.

ES: Yes, but there is always learning that happens extra so, when I did my PhD which was following young people through their first year at work, I developed a sort of theoretical framework, I guess you’d call it, around the sorts of learning that the young people were doing. So there was learning that was taught, where somebody actually taught them, whether it was to do with off the job training that they may be having as well if they were an apprentice or somebody in the workplace was teaching them one to one; there was learning that was sought, so the young people decided they wanted to learn something and they went out and did it. And then there was learning that was wrought, which was learning that they did as a result of something that happened, like the young man who got into trouble with partying with customers in the bar, he brought some learning from that. And I remember I once presented that finding at a conference and somebody said what about learning that is caught, do you know? the learning that just drops in their laps?


So there is taught, sought, wrought and caught, so they are probably are doing all of those things and to some extent you can write a curriculum to cover them but there is always going to be what we may call serendipitous learning as well I think. And I think the more interested the young person is the more likely they are to be taught things by people. So, there’s very much the factor of the individual person, it’s really important, and how much you can prepare that. It’s something that schools could work on to prepare young people so that they become more like that sort of person that employers really want to teach and want to help to nurture as well.


JM: I imagine is also about motivation of the student and is learning by doing rather than learning by sitting in a classroom and that will stay with you longer.


ES: Another point to that, because that’s a really important one, that what I found in various of my research projects was that the young people who didn’t do very well at school, often do very well learning at work in whatever sort of program’s arranged for them, because it gives them a chance to shine with different people so they are not with the group of people that they may be failing alongside at school, they are presented as a new person in a new environment and they often really shine in that sort of workplace environment, whereas at school they are sort of branded as not been very bright and carrying all of those assumptions with them. So, it’s a very important extra thing that young people can add to their repertoire of skills, I guess.


JM: Yes, I mean she’ll kill me, my daughter, but she will be an example of that (laughs). I hope she is not listening (laughs). Can you tell me also between the apprentice learning and the non-apprentice employment contracts. Is one better than the other? What’s the difference for a student?


ES: Ok so I think I’ve covered the ‘while-still-at-school’ aspect of it because ‘while-still-at-school’ is where those experiences is can range up to an apprenticeship.  But I think if you then look at young people that have left school, there is certainly a real difference between young people who had a job and young people who have an apprenticeship, which is a job plus, well in most countries, a job plus learning, so I think when you talk to young people who are in an apprenticeship, this is after they left school, that they know is their job to learn, and they set out to do that very meaningfully. Whereas if somebody is, where often young people call ‘just a job’, then some people may be learning quite voraciously but some young people will not particularly think they are there to learn, and I think employers in industries that haven’t got a tradition of apprenticeship will probably not see it so much as their job to teach young people. That’s a generalization and some employers will always want to teach people things about the work but in general there may be much less of a focus on learning if there isn’t an apprenticeship attached to a job.


JM: Ok thank you. I think what’s critical at this moment is also how can governments and employers contribute to improving lifelong learning particularly during the early years of an individual’s career, whether be part-time, full time, apprenticeships…so what’s the role of governments and employers to promote this learning … and the access of young people to these opportunities?


ES: I think that one thing that governments can do is to recognize the learning that takes place before young people leave school, so they are learning in their part-time work, whether is when they are at school or in fact, when they are at the university or other forms of tertiary education. It’s often regarded as not very important or not very real work, and yet the foundations of people learning through work is laid in those early years and I think, at the risk of being controversial, it’s because the sort of industries in which that early learning takes place it’s often in industries such as retail and hospitality which people don’t regard as being very important…I don’t know why because they are major industries in the economy and you can forge very useful careers. So, I think governments often fail to recognize that. Employers don’t fail to recognize that; so when you talk to employers in those industries, they often have a very strategic approach, to the young people who come and work for them, and are looking, for example, to the part-time student workforce for their future managers and very strategically train the better young people, and those young people often end up working with them when they finish school or when they finish University, even though they are in industries that people don’t respect very much. So, I think employers know exactly what they are doing, and they are doing some really good work. I think maybe governments don’t recognize it, but I think it varies amongst countries, countries have different attitudes towards the jobs that they think have high status and the ones they think are not high status. So, I am thinking in the sort of anglicized world where that hierarchy of jobs is pretty much present, and it could be different in different countries.


JM: I think it’s important that there is a greater respect for diversity of job opportunities in those opportunities that are pursued because I think you are right, the retail industry and the hospitality industry has underestimated the learning that goes on even in the most basic activity in job.


ES: Yes. At one stage I did a lot of work with the skills council for the retail and hospitality industry and they often talked about the way that people viewed those jobs, as jobs that people did before they did something else.


JM: Before they went into the real world … (laughs)


ES: Exactly, and yet the skills that were being learned were actually essential customer service skills, are just so useful in every single job that people do, you know when you talk to employers. In other industries they can really tell the difference between somebody who has had a really early grounding in those industries where they’re are all important and somebody who hasn’t and they have to be taught, whereas some people they are just developing through their part-time work.


JM: Do you think there is an appreciation of where apprenticeship-style learning sufficient? I mean in a lot of cultures is not present. I am from the US and there isn’t that notion of apprenticeship. And it seems that in some cultures in Europe it’s present, in others not, that’s my point of reference. So, is that something that is grow in your opinion with these new digital world or innovative world, this disruptive with AI or whatever…Is there still going to be this sort of a balance between part-time learning and apprenticeships?


ES: I think apprenticeship is very much on everybody’s lips at the moment and has been for the last 10 years or so. So, I think even in the United States…


JM: I know Ivanka Trump has made it a priority…


ES: Yes indeed. So, apprenticeship is becoming valued. I can’t think of any country where apprenticeship isn’t valued. Now, how it’s implemented is another matter and how far the reach of apprenticeship is, is another matter. In some countries, its reach is much broader, and do in many more occupations whereas in other countries, say Canada for example has a very limited but good apprenticeship system but only in certain occupations. Whereas Germany for example has much broader occupations that have apprenticeships. So, that means that young people whether is in their part-time work while they are still in school or in full time work when they’ve finished school, in some countries they have a much greater chance of having an apprenticeship because of the all sort of jobs that they are doing. So obviously that is an intervention point for governments to provide apprenticeships in many more jobs. Now, the sorts of developments in the world of work that you were just talking about is really important that apprenticeships are developed in those jobs and again, some countries have a very good system for adding occupations to their apprenticeship system and other countries are just not so advanced in that area. So, that will be a really important area for governments to look at. How can we always be scanning the environment for new occupations so that we can add them to the list of occupations that can have apprenticeships attached to them? Because, as I said, in an apprenticeship the learning is much more purposeful than just in an ordinary job.


JM: Yes, exactly. I like the notion of purposeful. So, I would like to thank you very much and I know that you have really just arrived from Australia so thank you for waking up and coming here on time and we look forward for maybe longer conversations with you and I would like to thank everyone for listening to this first podcast  and we hope to have you listening to more of our stuff when is available.

Coming up this month, we have some exciting events lined up for you. Our GAN Network in Costa Rica focus week will commence on May 27th until June 3rd with the release of a new publication, a video campaign and online webinars open for the public. Stay tuned for our next episode of this podcast (in Spanish) with the participation of 2 fantastic guests all the way from San Jose in Costa Rica, Liz Brenes and Priscila Chaves.




And if you are curious about SkillingNow please visit our webpage