• Fraser Harper

Recognising changing job proficiency…a long-term trend

There was a time when education and training set you up for a career and made you able to carry out the full duties of your chosen occupation1. Historically, there has been a balance between developing the fundamentals which underpin a job, and a period of observed and supervised practice. Perhaps the apprenticeship is the classic example of this regime2, but it is also true of many other occupations. In the UK, a move started to change the nature of engineering apprenticeships when the modular system was developed alongside the adoption of standards3. The speed of these changes weren’t great, but it was the start of the beginnings of a change. Pressure was coming from the application of new technology such as the computerisation of machine tools and the wave of application of semiconductors4. Employers were also calling for a move from time-serving to a standards-based approach. Much of these calls can also be said for many other professions, which have always benefited from the emphasis of lifelong learning (continuous professional development)5.

In this ‘workplace education and training’ environment, other changes were embarked upon. One was the move to modular apprenticeships, allowing technologies to be mixed and matched for breadth and depth of subject mastery6. A second was the development of the whole National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) Framework, which focused on demonstrated and observable competencies broken down to the element level7. The additional twist to the NVQ system was the external assessment and recognition of individual competences.

For some this created a series of concerns around educating and training people for a specific job rather than a license-based career8. Others in the engineering craft trades worried about the issue of dilution and the entry of dilutees into full apprenticeship-based careers9.

But what really challenged the NVQ system was the bureaucracy and the cost of assessment10.

More recently the pioneering work of the Open University11 has given rise to fully open, online education and training programmes called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)12. Alongside this came the growth of micro-credentials13. The online delivery of education and training has brought problems of assessment, which have now been largely solved14. One leading university, North Eastern University in Boston, has proposed that graduates “never leave” and become lifelong learners supported by the university15.

Running parallel with this education and training trend has been an increased use of occupational information (OI) databases, drawing upon US (O*NET) and European (ESCO) data16. By combining detailed information of work activities with the required abilities, skills and knowledge contained in an OI database with the best of the EdTech world means it is possible to develop occupation-specific – and near individual-specific – transition maps. Transition maps capture the path an individual can opt to take and lays out the competences to be developed in a step-by-step way. Each step may be education-, training-, or experience-based and is designed to meet the specific needs required to maintain currency – or transition to – a career cluster. The micro-credential approach supports cross-employer recognition and enhances the value of a person’s skills development.


  1. Wheatley, D.E. (1976) Apprenticeships in the UK. Social Policy Studies No 30. Commission of the European Community, Brussels. 206 pages.

  2. Liepman, K. (1960) Apprenticeship. An enquiry into its adequacy under modern conditions. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 204 pages.; Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. Allen Lane. 326 pages

  3. Wheatley, D.E. (1976) op. cit.

  4. Senker, P.; Huggett, C.; Bell, M. and Sciberra, E. (176) Technological change, structural change and manpower in the UK toolmaking industry. EITB, Watford.

  5. Spada Ltd. (2009) British Professions Today: The State of the Sector. Spada Ltd. 48 pages

  6. Wheatley, D.E. (1976) op. cit.

  7. McIntosh, S. and Steedman, H. (2001) Qualifications in the UK 1985-1999. LSE. Further Education Funding Council (1994) National Vocational Qualifications in the Further Education Sector in England. National Survey Report. 24 pages; Gatsby Charitable Foundation and Edge Foundation (2010) Technical education of the 21st century. Conference Report. 66 pages

  8. Spada Ltd. (2009) op. cit.; Frontier Economics (2017) Assessing the Vocational Qualifications Market in England. Research Report. Department for Education. 121 pages

  9. Cowan, K. (2014) Apprenticeships in Britain c1890 – 1920. An overview based on contemporary evidence. University of Lincoln. 12 pages.

  10. Cox, A. (2007) Re-visiting the NVQ debate: bad qualifications, expansive learning environments and prospects for upskilling workers. SKOPE Research Papers No. 71. 31 pages

  11. Open University (no date) History of the Open University. 4 pages.

  12. Yuan, L. and Powell, S. (2013) MOOCs and Open Education: Implication for Higher Education. A White Paper. JISC CETIS. 21 pages.

  13. Fishman, B.; Teasley, S. and Cederquist, S. (2018) Credentials as evidence for college readiness. Report of an NSF Workshop. School of Information, University of Michigan. 27 pages; Kuriacose, C. and Warn, A. (2016) A movement towards personalised professional learning: an exploration of six educator micro-credentials programs. Centre for Collaborative Education, Boston. 16 pages

  14. Greene, P. (2019) “Education micro-credentials 101: why do we need badges?”, Forbes, (Feb 16th)

  15. Aoun, J. E. (2017) Robot-Proof: Higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. MIT Press. 217 pages

  16. Hillage, J. and Cross, M. (2015) Exploring the value of an O*NET resources for the UK. Gatsby Charitable Foundation. 17 pages

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