Knives, blood and apprenticeships

Knives, blood and apprenticeships

Although I’m now a senior manager in HR, I’ve been through a range of roles; when I was much younger and less grey I was a butcher. It was hard work with long hours but immensely enjoyable. There’s a satisfaction in having the capability to turn raw material into a consistent, measured, scalable piece which meets a particular standard and quality each time. I still retain a few of the skills from when I worked there; the repetition and desire to learn when I was younger mean that I’m ‘hard-wired’ to still be able to joint a chicken in 3 minutes and bone out cuts to create fillets and roasts.

It was my first ‘real’ job; I’d done a few things before then but this was the first role that provided me with some workplace learning as part of my job. This meant starting from the bottom, doing the tasks that many considered repetitive and menial until I was able to demonstrate I had the right attitude and desire to learn what was required to be a successful butcher.

The training I got was, in the most part, all about learning on the job with guidance and direction from more experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. I considered calling them peers but they weren’t; I was very much a junior member of the team. Being 19 years old I was young, and of course, impetuous and unbreakable. This combination, in a room full of sharp knives and cutting equipment, led to the inevitable conclusion and I managed to give myself a significant cut.

I bear the scar with me today but more importantly I bear the memory of seeing and hearing people who wanted me to be the best at something having to scrabble around attempting to recover the meat (which I’d ruined), clean the knife (which I’d contaminated), and prevent me from bleeding out over the floor creating a more severe hazard.

There’s something in this episode about capability that feeds into the Apprenticeship model. I was reminded of this by Paul Matthews from People Alchemy who highlights that there are two distinct elements we need to consider:


The Cap in capability is about capacity; this is the capacity that the organisation has to support the Apprentice. For me this means we need to ask a few questions:

  • Are the organisation reliable and able to follow through on their promises and plans for development?

  • Are they flexible and able to react to the needs of the apprentice?

  • Are they assured and professional, treating the individual with the appropriate respect and courtesy?

  • Are they providing the appropriate tools and resources to enable the Apprentice to learn?

  • Do they understand the needs to the Apprentice and show empathy to their learning and development?

The Ability element is entirely driven by the individual; this is about the competence of the person and their learning ability. This means being able to decide what to learn, at what time, to create incremental steps to develop the person. In my example I decided to jump a few and started using knives when I hadn’t considered the challenge of using them safely; a month later might have been the right time and I needed to rely on the wisdom of the people who were responsible for me to develop the right skills at the right pace. Ability also includes personal will and attitude to an extent; do I want to learn and am I willing to accept the MoSCoW model:

  • Must learn

  • Should learn

  • Could learn

  • Would like to learn

As an Apprentice, does your organisation have enough capacity to support you? Do you have the ability?

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