The ancient Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle, referring to apprenticeship, once said “crafts are teachable, otherwise good craftsmen would be born, not made”.
Indeed apprenticeship, a system where knowledge and skills are imparted to a new generation of practitioners through on-the-job training, is one of the oldest methods of teaching and learning known to man.
In ancient times, apprenticeship was used to train new talent in fields as varied as Mathematics, Astronomy, Military Engineering, Medicine, Architecture and even magic.
The benefits of on-the-job training are numerous. To quote Aristotle again, “what we have to learn to do, we learn by doing”.
In countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the apprenticeship system is highly developed and combines on-the-job training with institutional-based theoretical studies which lead to recognised certification.
Here in West Africa, our forebears used apprenticeship to train in kente weaving, wood carving, bead making, pottery and other crafts.
In more recent times, the scope has expanded to include trades such as auto mechanics, garment making, hairdressing and carpentry, among others.
Trainees offer their labour to master craftsmen in exchange for learning the skills which will earn them a livelihood.
A typical apprenticeship may last anything from one to five years, depending on the abilities of the apprentice and the complexity of their chosen trade.
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Female-dominated trade areas such as garment making and hairdressing usually involve a shorter period of training than male-dominated ones such as auto mechanics and carpentry.
Apprentices will normally pay a nominal fee together with some gifts to the master at the start of the training.
The end of the apprenticeship period is often marked by a graduation party, sometimes organised by trade associations.
There are some weaknesses associated with the traditional apprenticeship system as practised in Ghana.
First, the training is not structured. Take the scenario of an apprentice to an auto-mechanic.
What he learns at any given time depends on the type of problems customers bring to the workshop, which means that it is possible to receive little or no exposure to some aspects of the trade for the entire period of the apprenticeship.
Second, bad professional practices are easily handed down from master to apprentice and are received as best practice.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of the system is that it is largely unregulated and training does not lead to recognised certification.
The unregulated nature of technical and vocational training in the informal sector poses a real problem for customers who are unable to verify the competence of a mechanic, seamstress or plumber until they have actually paid for their services.
Unfortunately, many of such transactions end in disappointment for customers.
There is no argument that this system has been in need of an overhaul for a long time.
The Ghana TVET Voucher Project (GTVP) has been spearheading the reform of the informal apprenticeship system for the past three years. The project is a collaboration between the German development agency GIZ and the Government of Ghana and is being implemented by the Council for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (COTVET) and PLANCO Consulting GmbH.
The project offers training vouchers to master craftsmen, their workers and their apprentices, which gives them access to training modules in formal technical and vocational institutions.
For apprentices to benefit from the intervention, they must be at least 15 years, been in training under a master craftsman for at least two months and be basically literate in English. Additional requirements are to do with the trade in which they are undertaking the training and the region in which they reside.
Currently, the project supports apprentices and master craftsmen in construction, welding, automotive repair, consumer electronics, garment making and cosmetology. Even though there are plans to scale up, the initiative presently benefits residents of the Greater Accra, Ashanti, Northern and Volta regions.
The project is a potential game-changer for a number of reasons. In the informal sector where they operate, master craftsmen rarely have the opportunity to upgrade their skills.
Most of them practise what they were taught as apprentices themselves until new technologies render their skills redundant.
The project offers them an opportunity for lifelong learning while equipping them with the hard and soft skills to become better trainers.
The benefits for apprentices are even greater. They are exposed to a more structured training where they spend 80 per cent of their time experiencing on-the-job training and 20 per cent in the institutions.
Unlike other apprentices, beneficiaries of the voucher project graduate with a COTVET Competency-Based Training Certificate at Proficiency One or Two and the opportunity to progress further on the National TVET Qualification Framework if they so wish.
There are benefits for the participating technical and vocational institutions as well. Critically, they increase their relevance to industry and have the opportunity to improve standards of service delivery among the 80 per cent of the working population that make up the informal sector.
They also get to mitigate the effects of dwindling enrolment figures by earning much-needed extra revenue.
In order for the quality of output of informal sector businesses to improve consistently, the axis of virtue that the initiative has introduced among formal training institutions, master craftsmen and apprentices must be strengthened so that the positive results continue to be experienced long after the voucher project has ended.
The writer is a communications specialist