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Learning in the workplace after age 19 Michael Eraut, University of Sussex

The TLRP project on “Early career learning” focused on learning at work by graduate nurses, engineers and accountants, but more general lessons about work-related learning for 14 – 19 year olds can be drawn. Research focused on learning rather than teaching shows that formal education and training provide only a small part of what is learned at work (Eraut, 2004). Most learning arises naturally out of the demands and challenges of work - solving problems, improving quality or productivity, or coping with change - and out of social interactions in the workplace with colleagues or customers. Responding to such challenges entails both working and learning.

Thus, much learning at work derives its purpose and direction from the goals of the work, which are normally achieved by using current competence, trying things out and talking to other people. Our research on learning among professionals at an early stage in their career has looked into how this happens.

Sometimes, however, people recognise a need for some additional knowledge or skill that seems essential for improving the quality of their work, expanding its range or taking on new duties. Learning goals are identified which employees pursue by a combination of self-directed learning, learning from experience and learning from other people. Formal training may be provided, perhaps alongside mentoring or coaching at local level. But even when there has been formal training off the job, people may still need further learning on the job before they become fully competent. This is especially true for short courses, which have very little impact unless they are appropriately timed and properly followed up.

The most common form of learning from other people takes the form of consultation and collaboration within the immediate working group. This may include teamwork, ongoing mutual consultation and support or observation of others in action. Beyond the immediate work environment, people seek information and advice, from other people in their organisation, from customers or suppliers or from wider professional networks, often on a reciprocal basis.

The critical factors affecting such learning are the microclimate of the workplace, the confidence of the worker and the role of the local manager.

The local manager influences both the climate and individual dispositions through active attention to social relationships, mutual learning and good feedback. He or she adds to learning opportunities through organising work to provide the appropriate level of challenge and support for groups and individuals, and to ensure participation in appropriate work activities. But local managers are rarely trained for this important aspect of their job. To develop managers for this role would significantly boost learning, quality and retention in the workplace.

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