How Are Professional Skills Acquired?: A Structured Process of on-the-Job Learning

How Are Professional Skills Acquired?: A Structured Process of on-the-Job Learning

Sari Metso (Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland) and Aino Kianto (Lappeenranta University of Technology, Finland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0948-8.ch004


As firms lose skilled labour force through mass retirement, turnover and economic fluctuations, a pressing concern is how to ensure that the skills of the present-day masters are conveyed to the future professionals. This chapter examines the process of how the skills leading to professional performance are acquired in the context of on-the-job learning and identifies the key factors in this process. Based on an empirical examination of the on-the-job training periods of 20 Finnish vocational college students a model is built, suggesting that there are three different levels of professional performance on a junior’s path towards professionalism. The results suggest that individual activity, critical observation, conscious doing and creativity are crucial in the learning process. The chapter contributes to the emerging discussion on knowledge sharing across generations in organisations.
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Population ageing and shortage of skilled labour force are topical problems faced by many organizations. According to some recent studies the U.S. labour force participation rate is decreasing (DiCecio, Engemann, Owyang & Wheeler, 2008) and this trend is common for most developed countries. Governments are concerned since this phenomenon threatens the prevailing standard of living. Also, labour force quality related to education and experience is expected to decline in the future (Jorgenson, Goettle, Ho, Slesnick & Wilcoxen, 2008.) The immediate challenge for organisations is to ensure that the essential skills of the present-day masters are conveyed forward to the future professionals. The article at hand contributes to solving this acute problem by presenting a structured process of acquiring the skills needed for professional performance in context of on-the-job learning. Thereby this study helps organizations to understand how professional performance is learnt and to recognize the most important phases in the learning process.

Interest towards learning at work has recently increased (Billett, 2001, 2004; Cheetham & Chivers, 2001a, 2001b; Collin & Tynjälä, 2003; Dymock & Gerber, 2002; Engeström, Engeström & Kärkkäinen, 1995; Eraut, 2004; Gherardi, 2001; Leslie, Kosmal Aring & Brand, 1998; Sauter, 1999). The emphasis of the recent literature has been on adult professional performance improvement at work. This type of learning is often called informal learning since it occurs outside classroom without curriculum and teachers. However, there is a shortage of research explaining how young students originally learn professional skills in authentic environments in the beginning stages of their careers. New perspectives on learning are needed since the nature of work and professions have changed rapidly and continue to do so. Hence, more research is needed in order to understand the process of the initial learning of professional performance.

It is relevant to study how young people become professionals since vocational qualification is mainly acquired through vocational college studies. While knowledge management literature has made many connections with the organizational learning literature, to the extent that knowledge management and organizational learning have been treated as synonyms (Argote & Ingram 2000), the literature on individual learning has received far less attention. However, we believe that for understanding how professional skills are transferred in an organization, it is useful also to examine this process from the perspective of the learning individual (Argote et al., 2000). Therefore our model is focused on understanding the individual-level issues connected with skills acquisition.

The chapter is organized as follows. First, we examine the basic theoretical tenets of understanding how individuals learn professional skills. We apply constructivist learning theory, which views learning in terms of active knowledge building, where concepts are constructed through personal interpretations of the meanings the learners attach to experiences (Bereiter, 2002; Vermunt, 1998). Secondly, we use empirical data collected from 20 third-year Finnish vocational college students and workplace instructors during the students’ on-the-job periods to build a model of professional skills development. Finally, we discuss the wider theoretical and practical implications of the model.

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