In-company training in a safety-critical industry: lessons from the aircraft industry

Junmin Li (Chair of Economics and Business Education, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany)
Matthias Pilz (Chair of Economics and Business Education, University of Cologne, Cologne, Germany)

Journal of Workplace Learning

ISSN: 1366-5626

Article publication date: 27 January 2023

Issue publication date: 7 March 2023

423

Abstract

Purpose

This paper aims to investigate the in-company training according to the technologically demanding and safety-critical feature of the aircraft industry. This study addresses to the tension between the structured and the more incidental part of in-company learning in their training and learning environment.

Design/methodology/approach

Against the background of concepts of workplace learning from vocational training research and concepts of the safety management system from safety research, aircraft companies from England and Germany were visited. Data from interviews with training managers and trainees as well as non-participant observations are analysed.

Findings

The findings show that workplace vocational learning in this industry is guided by different measures to design the learning environment to prevent purely incidental and informal knowledge acquisition. However, the formalisation of informal learning process leads to a high expenditure of material, personnel and time resources. The findings show that trainers and training managers working together internationally creatively manage different training systems. The training activities are designed to convey the values of safety culture like responsibility, accuracy, transparent communication and reporting. The requirements of the safety management system are also met through the training.

Research limitations/implications

Challenges and tensions in the actual implementation of the training activities could not be identified. The people interviewed were selected by the companies, so there is a risk that certain perceptions are over-represented.

Practical implications

The results show that the safety-critical industry needs its own pedagogical approach to workplace learning, which is not based on independent work processes in the workplace. Insights can be drawn for in-company training in other safety-critical industries too. However, to enable effective in-company learning, which at the same time strengthens the safety culture of the company, many resources must be used. The companies must consider all dimensions of work from the individual level to the work structure level.

Originality/value

This paper discusses the tension between formal and informal learning and shows the specific design of this tension on the basis of a concrete industry for the specific needs of this industry. The results lead to the realisation that the general discussion about workplace learning must be viewed in a differentiated way depending on the industry.

Keywords

Citation

Li, J. and Pilz, M. (2023), "In-company training in a safety-critical industry: lessons from the aircraft industry", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 35 No. 2, pp. 210-227. https://doi.org/10.1108/JWL-06-2022-0067

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Junmin Li and Matthias Pilz.

License

Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


Introduction

The aviation industry is a safety-critical industry. A single accident can affect company's ability to continue its business (Akselsson et al., 2009). At the same time, recent technological developments have led to the introduction of far-reaching, highly complex technologies in the aircraft industry. The digitization affects pilots (Li and Lajoie, 2021) as well as the manufacture of aircraft parts and the maintenance of aircraft, which are often controlled electronically via avionic software and computer systems (Ma et al., 2016). The system behind this is complex. Modern technologies have had a positive impact on safety management in this industry (Rasmussen, 1997) because the approaches of safety management require that unacceptable risks are eliminated through stricter monitoring, standardisation and automation (Safety-I). Safety is considered the absence of adverse events, that is, incidents, accidents or injuries. In other words, the absence or freedom from risk means that there is a high level of safety (Dekker et al., 2008). Alongside technological strategies, human abilities and skills are to be used as resources to achieve greater efficiency and safety (Safety II). Safety-II focuses on the way of working. It considers ways in which employees can adapt to stresses, challenges and the unexpected, synchronising their activities to resolve conflicts and achieve common goals (Hollnagel, 2014). Because human factors have been identified as the most common causes of accidents, for instance, in the oil and gas industry (Nwankwo et al., 2022), qualifying skilled workers to deal with this complex system is challenging.

The acquisition of skills by all professionals in this safety-critical industry is a key issue for the aircraft industry (Aerospace Industry Reference Committee, 2018). Research on this issue is relatively limited and mostly remains at the level of general education policy or focus only on pilots, air traffic controllers and flight attendants (Schwarz et al., 2016). Some studies in the field of aircraft production have investigated the overall training concepts and those that focus on standardisation internationally. For example, Bremer (2008) examines competence development within AIRBUS plants in France, Germany, Spain and the UK within the European Qualification Framework. Another study by Lahiff et al. (2019) considers the development of convergence within this industry. They concluded that the internationally set regulations and standards of the industry influence the training programmes more strongly than the general national training regulations. Hampson and Fraser (2016) also critically examine the convergence trend in training in the aircraft sector. They examined how the Australian Civil Aviation Authority (CASA) adopted the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulatory requirements for aircraft maintenance engineer training. The study by Saniter (2012) also addresses an international aspect in training in this industry. The AEROVET project tested the elements of the technical European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training specifications in the context of transnational mobility.

While the literature above addresses general policy, there is hardly any literature dealing with the in-company training activities of this industry that considers the safety-critical aspect. Conducting in-company training in a safety-critical environment is challenging. This is because the approaches to workplace learning often discussed in the literature, such as informal learning, learning through experience and learning by making mistakes (Harteis et al., 2008), are only possible to a limited extent because of the consequences of mistakes in a safety-critical industry and the high degree of standardisation in the industry. At the same time, research on safety management systems and safety culture is often limited to management levels and only marginally addresses learning activities in production sides. Against this background, the present study synergises the two perspectives “workplace learning” and “safety culture”. Thus, the question arises:

Q1.

How is in-company learning in the production designed in this safety-critical industry?

In particular, in this technologically demanding and safety-critical industry:

Q2.

How do companies manage the tension between the structured and the more incidental part of in-company learning in their training and learning environment?

Related concepts and approaches

In-company learning is part of vocational education and training, which is understood as a comprehensive developmental process that takes place over the course of a person's career and life span. This development process includes the deepening and expanding vocational knowledge and skills that takes place in organisational contexts within both formal and informal practices (Ellinger, 2005; Guile, 2019; Manuti et al., 2015). The theoretical discussion on the pre-requisites for workplace learning in companies is based on concepts of the design of the learning environment at the workplace and overlaps with concepts of informal learning (James and Holmes, 2012). The literature identifies various environmental factors that promote workplace learning (Eraut and Hirsch, 2007; Fuller and Unwin, 2010). In particular, the literature discusses different aspects such as the tension between formal and informal learning, situated and non-situated learning and individual and social learning (Pylväs et al., 2022). Different research dimensions arise from the aforementioned discussion, such as organisational structure, work infrastructure and the social structure of the workplace (Cole, 2001).

Safety management in this industry includes the establishment of a safety culture, which is applied in all areas of the company, including training. Safety culture is defined by the Civil Air Navigation Service Organisation as reflecting individual, group and organisational attitudes, norms and behaviours related to the safe provision (CANSO, 2009). The safety culture determines the norms, priority and commitment of each person, each group and at all levels of the organisation. A sound safety culture stabilises the system and ensures the safety and efficiency of aviation (Akselsson et al., 2009). Similar to the workplace learning approaches, literature on safety culture in the aircraft industry also focuses strongly on the design of the different dimensions of the working environment (Teperi and Leppänen, 2010).

Considering the limited scope of earlier literature, this study follows a multidimensional approach (Fuller and Unwin, 2004). This study addresses the concept of learning environment through the following three dimensions: individual development, social interaction and workplace structure. On the individual level, the individual possibility of accessing knowledge is examined. On a social level, knowledge exchange through social interaction is considered. On an organisational level, the work structure is explored as an environment conducive to learning. These aspects are interdependent and cannot always be separated from each other. Because the focus of the study is on workplace learning, literature from the field of workplace learning is used here for the theoretical foundation. In the next step, the findings from the field of workplace learning are combined with findings from the field of the safety management system and safety culture and applied to the present study.

Individual development

Learning in the workplace context means that employees can broaden and deepen their professional competence through formal and informal learning activities. To develop professional competencies, access to professional knowledge and a variety of professional activities must be provided, whether through formal training or informally through interaction with colleagues, observation or job changes (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Eraut and Hirsch, 2007). This access to knowledge can also be formally organised by increasing work-based learning. In this process, a person's professional development can be a gradual transition from the role of a marginal auxiliary to a full-fledged member of a work team (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

Literature from the field of safety culture indicates that individual employee commitment is an important factor in raising safety issues. Therefore, it is possible that in-company training will increase employee’s commitment to improve the safety culture. In particular, the attention and motivation of skilled worker should be promoted through various programmes to establish the right working behaviour (Bridges and Tew, 2010; Sushmitha et al., 2020). Therefore, it is interesting to investigate in which degree this commitment plays a role in the in-company training as well.

Social interaction

Social interaction facilitates knowledge acquisition in the workplace. In the literature, particular emphasis is placed on the social relationship between novices and experts, in the function of coaches or mentors, which supports the professional development of novices (Coetzer, 2006; Fuller and Unwin, 2004). On the other hand, the power relationship between novices and experts can also be a hindrance if professional knowledge is monopolised by experts. Colleagues and supervisors may have a partial interest in withholding knowledge and preventing learning to strengthen or maintain their position of power (Ashton, 2004). Lave and Wenger (1991) therefore suggest that a relationship of trust between novices and experts is essential for the professional development of novices. Especially for informal workplace learning, this social relationship is a driver (Choi and Jacobs, 2011; van der Rijt et al., 2013). Reciprocal relationships between all members of work communities have been shown to help build mutual trust and respect (Fuller and Unwin, 2004; Clarke, 2005; Nielsen, 2008; Onnismaa, 2008). In turn, individuals contribute to the social construction of knowledge in the workplace through their actions and reactions (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2004). It is evident that personal support from colleagues, supervisors or mentors is an important factor in adequately building new knowledge and skills (Ashton, 2004; Billett and Rose, 1996). As Wallo et al. (2022) found in interviews with managers, promoting employee learning as part of learning oriented leadership is an important task for managers, practised in daily work.

In addition to personal support, the need for supervision (e.g. by coaches) is also emphasised in error prevention and quality control as part of the safety management system (Bridges and Tew, 2010). Bridges and Tew (2010) point out that about 15% of human errors are because of acquired habits. Many companies have effective systems in place to combat bad habits. These systems also involve social interactions such as peer-to-peer observation and feedback, and these are often referred to as behaviour-based safety management (Sushmitha et al., 2020). The need for focus on soft skills such as communication, teamwork and decision-making between different actors to minimise error making is emphasised in other safety-critical industries as the oil and gas industry as well (Johnsen et al., 2017).

Workplace structure

Workplace learning is not only defined by the accumulation knowledge and through social interaction but also by the experiences a person has in different situations during their professional life (Eraut and Hirsch, 2007). In line with this, Billett (2001) points out that expertise must be considered situationally because it is related to the circumstances in which the expertise is used. The possibilities for workers to apply their knowledge and skills in the workplace often depend on the structure of their workplace. For example, strictly taylorised work processes hardly allow for new practices and thus new experiences (Fuller and Unwin, 2004). On the contrary, semi-autonomous workplace structures with a diverse work profile allow workers to gain new knowledge and experience, as they give workers some leeway to try out different work practices and decisions that could lead to innovation (Ashton, 2004; Coetzer, 2006; Wallo et al., 2022).

For the realisation of the workplace structures mentioned above, Ellinger (2005) emphasises that the right material resources in the workplace are necessary to enable informal learning because they are related to job functions and responsibilities. She also points out that learning at the workplace is only possible if learning time is allowed, especially time to reflect on work steps and thus generate knowledge. In the study by Wallo et al. (2022), resources, especially time resources, are also seen as a core challenge in promoting learning of employees. Regarding safety culture, material and time resources are also relevant, in particular to avoid miscommunication between workers. Companies need to provide the work structure with appropriate overlaps between shifts to exchange knowledge. Verbal instructions have been understood clearly. The work structure also needs to provide means to compensate for noise interference of communication (Bridges and Tew, 2010). For instance, non-technical training such as Crew Resource Management training has been introduced to various safety-critical industries to cover the training of communication skills, situational awareness, teamwork, decision-making, leadership and personal limitations (Johnsen et al., 2017). Eraut and Hirsch (2007) point out that a newcomer can only become an expert if they are given the opportunity to expand their knowledge, make their own decisions, apply their knowledge in different situations, evaluate their own performance and reflect on their work. Continuous reflection is seen as key to learning success in safety-critical work environments (Bjørnsen et al., 2022).

An organisational structure that enables learning is essential (Ellinger and Cseh, 2007). For example, regular feedback on both strengths and development potential plays an important role in professional development. In the area of safety culture, Bridges and Tew (2010) also emphasise the importance of personnel resources. They report that supervisors are also responsible for selecting the right specialist for the right task. The authors critically note that, for example, not all supervisors are trained for their key roles in supporting employees. Furthermore, dealing openly with mistakes within a company can also offer development opportunities for employees. In some safety-critical industries, learning from error and incidence is organised under the term learning from incident (LFI) (Murphy et al., 2021). This is because reflection processes can be activated here and experiences can happen on a meta-cognitive level (Lave and Wenger, 1991). The promotion of reflection on one's own actions is a key element of learning (Kolb, 1984). It is important in research on learning in the workplace (Billett, 1999) and in the safety critical work environment (Bjørnsen et al., 2022). The importance of a positive error culture is also emphasised in the literature on safety culture. Stolzer and Goglia (2015) describe the error culture of a mature safety management system as follows:

Finally, employees of an organization with a mature SMS [safety management system] understand that they are fully accountable for their actions, but not punished for unfortunate but natural human error. To the question of what happens when they make a mistake, the employees would answer that they would probably feel bad, maybe even ashamed that they did it, but not enough to keep them from participating in the self-reporting systems the company has created. They understand that they are not responsible for being perfect, but are responsible for striving for continuous improvement, and one of the best ways to reach for that goal is to submit a report. (p. 42)

In addition to informal learning, formal learning is also an important part of professional development. Employees need to develop the skills to draw on their formal knowledge and use it to manage their work (Griffiths and Guile, 2003). Consequently, both formal and informal learning can support workplace learning and a mature safety culture (Murphy et al., 2021).

The literature shows that individual access to knowledge and the training for a safety critical behaviour are often determined by the social structure at work. Knowledge and habits are often passed on through social interaction. Furthermore, the literature on work structure emphasises the importance of learning by experience, learning by trial and error, which should be facilitated by an appropriate work environment.

Method

There are only a few, large companies in this industry for end manufacture, assembling or maintenance. To increase the sample of companies examined here, the study was conducted in two countries: the UK and Germany. These countries have different skill formation systems regarding the training cultures (Pilz, 2009). In spite of different general training cultures, Lahiff et al. (2019) found strong identities in training in the aircraft industry, which legitimises the integration of companies from the UK and Germany.

Within the framework of the research project, field research was planned and carried out at seven companies from the aerospace sector: three in England and four in Germany. In addition, a vocational school in Germany was visited and teachers were interviewed. The companies were selected to reflect the breadth of the industry and because they were accessible to the researchers. To this end, component manufacturers and aircraft manufacturers were considered just as much as maintenance companies in both countries. However, only larger companies with well-developed training structures were considered.

To adequately capture the details and specificities and the multiple variables influencing training activities in different companies, a mixed-method approach was used in conjunction with a case study approach (Yin, 2014). A multiple-case replication design was chosen because, on the one hand, the contextual conditions of the training programmes are taken into account in the research design. On the other hand, the study of several companies, that is, multiple cases, enables replication and thus generates more robust results (Yin, 2014). The research question was discussed in the companies through non-participant observation of the apprentices in the in-house training centre and at the workplace. At the same time, semi-structured interviews were conducted with apprentices, trainers and other staff involved, and document analysis of work plans, company training programmes and examinations was conducted.

The interview guidelines and observation dimensions were based on the context-input-process-product (CIPP) model for evaluating training according to Stufflebeam (1971). The context dimension includes all factors which are important for a certain environment, for example, need, problems and opportunities. The input dimension considers the strategy, work plans and resources for the realisation of the objectives. The process dimension investigates the activities and documents to completing the training. The product dimension localises the intended and unintended outcomes of the activity (Stufflebeam, 2003). For the research question of the paper, we focus on the investigation of the process dimension which consists of the following intertwined components: the company learning locations, the didactic and assessment concept as well as the possibility for further qualification. The focus on the process dimension was a pragmatic tool in the development of our research to navigate the complexity. Furthermore, the research dimensions were created based on the theoretical concepts outlined in the previous section and the results of a preceding expert workshop with English and German participants.

A total of 30 people were interviewed. They participated in the study on a voluntary basis and were assured anonymity in any reporting of the findings. Table 1 shows the interviewed persons in their functions.

The training managers interviewed had previously worked as aircraft mechanics for over 10 years and then as line inspectors or supervisors before becoming full time trainers. The majority of the trainers had been working in the companies surveyed for over 20 years. The apprentices were all in their third year of training. Three of the apprentices have a pilot licence and one apprentice was in the process of doing a pilot course. Two of the trainees had previously started studying at university, but found it too theoretical and dropped out. Both German teachers have a background as aircraft mechanic or aircraft electrician. Both teachers have been working for the German Armed Force before they started teaching at the vocational schools.

A separate interview guide was developed for each interview group. The visit to the companies started with interviews with the training managers, followed by interviews with the apprentices. Afterwards, the research team was guided through the training centres and workplaces by either apprentices or trainers. During the tour there were also opportunities to talk about the training activities, consequently the interviews partly overlapped with the observations. This order of the interview groups made it possible to revisit and check statements made by the trainers, for example, in the subsequent interviews with the apprentices. Also during the observations, interview contents could be validated again by the researchers. In addition, the smaller conversations during the observations could be used to identify possible areas of conflict or diverging interests between the informants. The research team visited one of the seven companies for 2.5 days. The other companies were visited for one day. Therefore, interviews and observations lasted between 6 and 20 h per company and were conducted and documented via manual field protocol by at least three researchers. The data obtained were written down and condensed in case reports and reflected through de-briefing meetings of all involved researchers, as neither audio nor video recordings were permitted in the companies. A uniform procedure was agreed upon within the research team for taking minutes. This included, for example, taking down selected original statements of the interviewees. The original quotes were cross-checked directly after the individual interviews by comparing with the notes of the other researchers. In the first step, the contents of the reports were summarised in the core components of the training, for example, in-company learning venues, didactic concepts and further qualification, to obtain an overall picture of the training in this industry (see Results section).

The protocols were analysed using qualitative content analysis (Mayring, 2000). Firstly, a deductive analysis was carried out (Potter and Levine-Donnerstein, 1999). The findings were assigned to the corresponding category – access to knowledge, social interaction and workplace structure – according to the multidimensional theory approach (see above). Additional inductive coding supplemented the deductive analysis. In doing so, aspects related to the safety-critical aspect of training were given greater focus. Overall, our research design combines deductive and inductive approaches.

Results

In all visited companies, irrespective of the country, in-company learning takes place according to a similar training concept. The company-based part of the training is divided into a centrally organised part in the company's own training centre and a company-based part directly at the workplace. At the beginning of the training, the apprentices spend most of their training at the training centre. In the training centres, the basic skills for later workplace learning are taught. As time goes by, the proportion of training in the training centre decreases and the amount of time spent in the production facilities increases. The workplace learning in all companies follows a rotation plan, which ensures that the apprentices get to know all production sites. The exact ratio of the training shares in the training centres and in the production sites varies depending on the company.

In all companies, there are full-time training managers who organise and coordinate the training as a whole. In addition, there are full-time trainers in the training centres and experienced professionals, the part-time coaches, who supervise the apprentices in the workplace. In addition to the full-time training managers and trainers, who are pedagogically qualified, the part-time coaches also receive training on training methods.

In the following section, according to the research results structured by the CIPP model, the learning venues in the workplace are described. Subsequently, the didactic and assessment concept of in-company training and the possibilities for further qualification are presented.

Learning venues

The training centres have the function of giving learners the opportunity to learn, practice and develop knowledge, skills and abilities away from the pressures of production. This is the place where basic skills for the workplace are taught. They learn the basics of aircraft construction, basic craft skills and have the opportunity to use special tools before moving on to other components. This is because – because of the safety-critical nature of the industry – it is important that work in the production facilities is carried out flawlessly right from the start. In the training centres, engines from the previous models are available to the apprentices as training objects. Although these training objects are no longer in use and all clearly labelled as “learning objects”, their basic features have not changed from objects currently in use. The apprentices can therefore work on “real objects”. In the training centre, the apprentices learn to work with the production manuals, which are an important part of production. The manuals are not training manuals. They are written by engineers as working instructions for the daily work routine. Here, too, it is important for the company's safety management that the manuals are understood correctly and that the specifications are later correctly implemented at the workplace. The room for misinterpretation of the manuals must already be trained away in the training centre.

Furthermore, the training managers understand that the advantage in the training centres compared to the production sites is that the apprentices have scope to learn and try as they wish. “Let the apprentice be creative and allow them to make mistakes as this could not be realised on the production line” (training manager, E2). Because free possibilities to try out learning is not possible later on in the workplace. The steps in the workplace are strictly regulated to make all consequences predictable for safety reasons.

After the basic training, the apprentices complete a series of smaller practical projects and document the work processes according to a standardised procedure. The documentation of the work processes is in fact an important part of the work at the workplace to be able to trace all work steps in case of undesired events and to identify the cause of the error as quickly as possible. The training phase then begins at various stations in production or maintenance. The duration at the respective training stations is defined in a training plan and varies from company to company. In the final year of training, the apprentices spend only about 20% of their training time at the training centre. This prepares them for their assignment at their future workplace as they are already trained there.

The apprentices continually learn to work with the production and maintenance manuals during their work placement such that they are able to interpret and execute them correctly in a real authentic work context. The workplaces enable the apprentices to learn competences at different training levels and provide the apprentices with a range of demonstrable competences. The skilled workers at the workplaces play a crucial role to achieve this training goal. The importance of experienced professionals as knowledge holders is crucial for workplace learning. The social relationship between the apprentices and the skilled workers at the workplaces determines the learning successes at the respective stations. The companies deliberately use trainers in the workplace who are trained to support the trainees in their learning, to check their work and to give feedback. In talking about the apprentices' learning in the workplaces, the trainers explained how the sequence and content of the respective production and maintenance manuals shape the work process. There was thus an obvious and strong relationship between the manuals and the organisation of the apprentices' learning during their assignment at the workplaces. In the manuals, each task is described in great detail. However, the trainers do not see the manual as a training manual. Instead, the manuals are primarily technical and have no educational elements. As the training manager of G4 explains: “The manual is about what to do. The apprenticeship programme is about how to do.” This quote makes it clear that although the manuals specify which steps to take, the correct execution of the steps is taught and checked by experienced trainers to minimise the risk of error.

In the final year of training, the apprentices work mostly in the production workshops or placement. Normally they are placed in the area to which they will be assigned after the apprenticeship. Because of safety concerns, however, they are not allowed to carry out work independently but only to assist. Through their social integration in a working group, the apprentices will also learn appropriate work behaviour, habits and routines that are important for safety-critical work. An example is working carefully, calmly and cleanly. All work steps must be carefully documented und controlled by the supervisors. Running and shouting are not allowed in the production plants. The working tools must be cleaned up and returned to their original place directly after each working step, and the signs indicating a “Foreign Object Debris free zone” could be found at every workplace in all companies. These signs draw attention to safety-critical working practices.

Didactic and assessment concept of the training

All the companies studied pursue a proven didactic concept in the design of the learning environment for training the next generation of skilled workers. Three main aspects were repeatedly addressed by all companies:

  1. the promotion of problem-solving skills, critical thinking and self-directed learning;

  2. the use of feedback and assessment as a basis for the individual development of the apprentices; and

  3. the social integration of the apprentices.

  1. Promoting problem-solving skills, critical thinking and self-directed learning

    All companies follow a training concept that promotes problem-solving skills, critical thinking and self-directed learning. For example, the training manager of E2 emphasises that it is particularly important in the field of maintenance that problems can be solved competently. In a similar context, the training manager of G1 describes that creative thinking is to be promoted in problem solving. The following quote illustrates this: “There [are] no rules or patterns in damage, everything could happen. We need an open mind! We need strategy people: how do they solve problems?” (Training manager, G3).

    The safety-critical character of the work is also repeatedly emphasised and the consequences of mistakes are made clear, for example, through picture documentation. As one apprentice explained: “We are building a real plane and not a model” (G3). The safety-critical feature of these occupations was emphasised in the vocational schools as well, which is illustrated in the following quote: “If you have a technical problem, it will, maybe, be your last problem” (GT1).

    As mentioned above, manuals play an important role at work. In training, at the same time, the critical use of manuals becomes important. The training manager from company G1 explained that apprentices need to learn how to use the right information in the right situation and that this is central to the development of learning activities in the training centre. Relying solely on following a manual is questioned and discouraged in training.

    In addition, all companies encourage new ways of thinking to solve a particular problem. The pedagogical focus is a self-directed approach to encourage apprentices to plan their work and training. In the interviews, the tension between high standardisation of work steps and critical independent thinking becomes clear. In spite of the closely regulated work processes, critical thinking is very important so that dangerous consequences of a faulty work step can be quickly recognised and averted.

  2. Use of feedback and assessment

    In terms of feedback on workplace learning, all respondents in both countries described the importance of feedback loops for the development of training competences. Although the procedures and designations varied between countries and companies, each apprentice received regular feedback on their progress during their training period.

    At E2, a log-book of work completed was used to organise a monthly review with respective trainers. The training manager also explained how first year apprentices, who returned to the production line one day per week, were mentored by third year apprentices. This ensured that third year apprentices are encouraged “to give something back” and reflect on the development of practice when supporting those in their first year.

    Feedback and assessment are often conducted together. All companies use a structured procedure with clear and standardised criteria. The time intervals between feedback range from 4 to 12 weeks. For example, in company G2, every four weeks there is an assessment with assessment items documented on an excel spreadsheet. At every placement, the supervisor will give the apprenticeship structured feedback about their performance. The results of the feedback and assessment are considered as a basis for the individual competence development of the apprentice. The interviews with the coaches show that safety-critical work behaviour is also an element that is repeatedly taken up in the feedback discussions, as the use of feedback and reflection instruments is also emphasised in the safety management system and is intended to support the avoidance of errors and the promotion of a safety-oriented way of working. The feedback loops make it possible, for example, to uncover and correct bad habits and dangerous work behaviour and to identify sources of danger in the work structure.

  3. Social integration of the apprentices

    To facilitate the involvement of the apprentices in the production process, the companies focused not only on the development of the apprentices' technical knowledge and skills but also on the development of the apprentices as team members. At E1, for example, the test stations in the purpose-built test facility were organised, planned and controlled by a team. Depending on the apprentice rotation and shift work, one apprentice was present as a team member at each test. In this way, the apprentices learned from the beginning not only the importance of belonging to a team but also the process of solving problems and finding solutions together. The importance of communication and the exchange of information associated with it are particularly important here. The apprentices learn not only to express themselves clearly to others and to interpret the technical terms and instructions but also to use them themselves to avoid dangerous misunderstandings. Furthermore, they learn from role models how to behave in a safety-critical work environment.

Possibility of further qualification

The completion of the training is considered the first stage in the professional life of the “aircraft mechanic”. After the training, the graduates receive a personalised stamp with their own initial, with which they document and stamp all work steps. The use of the stamp can be found in all the companies visited and illustrates once again the responsibility of each individual company member for the safety of this industry. One coach illustrates the consequences of a critical mistake at work with the following quote: “If I make a mistake, they can track me back by my personal stamp for 60 years to charge me” (E1).

Because of the highly regulated qualification requirements in the industry, opportunities for further qualification are standardised in the companies and approved by EASA. Consequently, these opportunities for further qualification are transparent and can be passed through by interested professionals. For example, working with different engine types in company G2 requires its own further qualification. Considering this, it is not possible for the skilled workers to perform all positions in the company independently upon completion of their training. With increasing experience in the course of their employment, the skilled workers pass through various qualification levels in the company, which enables them to work individually and independently. Each qualification level requires its own skill assessment and is licenced. The further qualification offers of company G2 reflect this standardised route well. After successful completion of the apprenticeship, the apprentices receive their internal licence for engine mechanics level 1. In their first year as fully fledged employees, they receive internal training for specific engines (“engine type rating course”). Subsequently, they are tested on that engine by the workshop manager and acquire the internal licence level 2. With this licence, the person is allowed to work independently, but only for a specific engine type. A level 3 licence allows the mechanic to go to the customer and carry out maintenance on site. Level 4 is the licence to work as a line inspector. At this level, mechanics work as “incoming inspectors” where they inspect engines that have failed in some way and decide how to repair them.

This example shows how learning processes continue to be strictly formalised even after training. Based on the different licence levels that can be achieved step by step through a standardised qualification route, professional experiences are thus also formalised and regulated. In this way, it can be ensured that only professionals with the right qualifications are allowed to carry out a certain work activity and uncertainties can be reduced. Consequently, the risk of hiring the wrong person is reduced.

Discussion

The results of the study show the different facets of in-company training activities in the aviation industry. It becomes clear here that the quality of work of the skilled workers in this safety-sensitive industry must already be supported by their training and qualification and the standardisation of both the training activities and later the work tasks is high and internationally regulated. Therefore, the visited companies do have comparably similar training approaches to deal with safety critical issues. The presentation of the findings in the above section is structured according to the structures of the training programmes, while the discussion uses an instrument to analyse the deep structures from the theoretical concepts. However, both structures are compatible with each other. The discussion of the results is following the three theoretical dimensions: individual development, social interaction and workplace structure (see above).

Individual development

If we consider the individual dimension of access to knowledge in training, here we see a highly structured formalised process in which the knowledge base is mainly acquired in training centres. For the access to knowledge, the production and maintenance manuals have a key role. In the training centres, the apprentices learn how to read the manuals and how to conduct the working tasks described by the manuals correctly. Learning through mistakes and creativity is also always emphasised but only in the interviews in the context of training centres. They can try different ways of problem solving, which is also important to help them understand why the manuals are written in a certain way. Work-based learning gradually increases over time. Contrary to the literature (Ellinger, 2005), the share of workplace learning is also regulated less by informal learning, but by a systematised exchange of knowledge between novices and experts, for example, through the introduction of coaches and mentors, who are specifically prepared for their task in advance through training and supported by standardised training materials, such as evaluation sheets. Later in the qualification, the individual access to knowledge is also regulated, for example, through the allocation of minimum working hours. It is interesting to note that through the regulation of minimum working hours, even learning through experience, which is often discussed in the literature in the context of informal learning (Guile and Griffiths, 2001; Onnismaa, 2008), is strongly formalised here. Against the background of safety culture, we can see the emphasis on a precise and clean way of working, which is meticulously documented and controlled. The commitment of the apprenticeship to the safety-critical work behaviour is clearly considered. The concern of their responsibility for the safety is always present and made clear through the working and learning environment, for example, through personalised stamps and the installation of warning signs (Stolzer and Goglia, 2015).

Social interaction

With regard to the social interaction between apprentices and experienced skilled workers, the companies show a gradually increasing interaction of apprentices in the work teams throughout the years of training. The trainers emphasised that the quality of the social relationship between the apprentices and the other skilled workers influences their learning success. At the same time, it becomes clear in the results that social interaction does not form randomly but is an essential part of the work organisation. Within the working groups, the roles are also clearly defined, so that the apprentices always have a coach or mentor at their side. The coaches and mentors are, in turn, in contact with the training manager and with the trainers at the training centres. This exchange of information is formalised through regular feedback loops and meetings. The monitoring and evaluation of the work is perceived as a matter of course because of the formalisation and is accepted by everyone. Consequently, sources of danger at work can also be identified and systematically eliminated here. The standardised feedback instrument reduces the risk of misunderstandings (Bridges and Tew, 2010; Johnsen et al., 2017). The consequences of mistakes and learning for incidents are also discussed with the apprentice on the basis of real accident reports, photo documentation, artefacts and statistics. The observed practices reflect many findings of learning-oriented leadership from the field of workplace learning research (Wallo et al., 2022) as well as approaches from research on LFIs (Murphy, 2021).

Workplace structure

As mentioned in the workplace structure section above, various studies cite the strength of semi-autonomous workplace structures as being the ability to gather new knowledge and experience and to allow for trying out different working methods (Ashton, 2004; Coetzer, 2006). The study results reflect this workplace structure only to a limited extent. The workplace structure of the companies studied is not taylorised but the high level of automation and strict adherence to manuals leave little room for trying out new working methods. Nevertheless, critical and independent thinking are important here and this is especially reflected in the interview results of the companies that focus on maintenance. The training managers are aware of these problems at the workplaces and therefore promote these competences especially in the training centres.

Moreover, the training centres provide the human, material and time resources that are not available to the apprentices in the workplaces. Ellinger (2005) points out that learning at the workplace is only possible if work steps are reflected on. The study results show that the possibility of reflection is implemented in the training structure and time is regularly reserved for it, for example, through regular feedback loops, which are documented through feedback forms and through the regular log-book entries of the apprentices. The study results clearly show that the workplace structure of the companies does not yet allow apprentices to work independently in various situations and make their own decisions after successfully completing their training. However, independent work is cited as a pre-requisite for acquiring vocational expertise (Eraut and Hirsch, 2007). The standardised further training routes of the companies show by way of example that the step-by-step introduction to the independent execution of work is embedded in the long-term workplace structure. This result again reflects the strong influence of the safety culture of this industry. The risk of making mistakes is reduced by the highly standardised work structure and little autonomous work. At the same time, the work structure offers material, human and time resources for the exchange of information between the workers, also to reduce sources of danger. Stolzer and Goglia (2015) mention that “in an SMS, the responsibility for safety is pushed out onto the shop floor” (p. 42).

Conclusion

In summary, workplace learning in this industry is guided by different measures to design the learning environment to prevent purely incidental and informal knowledge acquisition, as warned against by the literature (Leslie et al., 1998). Many approaches to workplace learning that are discussed in theory, such as the change in the role of the apprentice from a marginal auxiliary to a fully fledged member of a work team, as described by Lave and Wenger (1991), can be observed here. Moreover, the asymmetrical exchange between less experienced and experienced colleagues described by Ashton (2004) and Wallo et al. (2022) to gain access to knowledge is systematised in the companies studied here. However, the institutionalisation of this often informal learning process leads to a high expenditure of material, personnel and time resources. While this can be borne by companies in this industry, this may not be possible for companies in other industries, for example, where small- and medium-sized enterprises are over-represented.

The findings show that trainers and training managers working together internationally creatively manage different training systems. In addition, the strengths of informal learning are predominantly institutionalised here through the use of high resources such as training centres and coaches to ensure that skilled workers develop knowledge, skills and understanding to meet the full range of critical competencies required by industry.

The training activities are designed to convey the values of safety culture like responsibility, accuracy, transparent communication and reporting. The requirements of the safety management system are also met through the training. Here, it is evident that the potential of informal learning is not fully exploited because of the special role of the company's safety management system.

From the results, insights can be drawn for in-company training in other safety-critical industries such as oil, chemicals or medicine. In these industries, too, the potential of informal learning (through mistakes, incidents and experience) cannot be fully exploited (Bjørnsen et al., 2022; Cuvelier, 2019; Murphy et al., 2021). The findings on structuring and formalising activities at the individual and social level as well as at the level of work organisation in the aviation industry can also be used in other production-oriented sectors with safety-critical characteristics, such as the chemical industry. But also other industries with high quality requirements, for example, special machine construction, can adapt the practices of quality management in context of in-company learning of the aviation industry. However, to enable effective in-company learning, which at the same time strengthens the safety culture of the company, many resources must be used. The companies must consider all dimensions of work from the individual level to the work structure level. It is clear from the results that these theoretical dimensions are very strongly interwoven and cannot be considered in isolation. In particular, only a mature workplace structure enables a learning environment at the workplace which fosters constructive social interaction and thus supports individual access to knowledge and supports a safety critical mindset and behaviour. Finally, the results show that the safety-critical industry needs its own pedagogical approach and academic discourse to workplace learning, which is not based on independent work processes in the workplace. Because of its special context, workplace learning in safety-critical industries can be considered as a separate research strand in the field of workplace learning, where discourses on incident learning, learning by making mistakes and the importance of freedom of action and informal exchange would have to be discussed anew. Here, further interdisciplinary research should be carried out, in which findings from the field of workplace learning should be interlinked with industry-specific characteristics to question the general discourses around workplace learning. The research findings also raise the question as to which industries the discourses on workplace learning summarised in the concepts can actually be applied or whether the discourses on workplace learning should rather be discussed separately in the context of individual industries.

The high level of investment and commitment by all stakeholders are examined here. The approach of error prevention through training has been explored in this paper. Conversely, the results of the study can also be interpreted as a high pressure to perform and tension of all participants to deal with the safety-critical nature of their working environment. Some quotes from the interviewees already indicate this. Fenwick (2004) points out the tension between the interests of workers (labour) and management (capital) in the context of research on critical human resource development. In this study, the high level of international regulation in the area of safety management and zero error policy can be defined as another critical tension for the human resource development. Further research could pick up here and take up the handling of errors and incidents in the production facilities and examine the zero error culture in the safety-critical industry more closely against the background of critical human resource development. In particular, aspects such as the limits of individual development and emancipation (Sambrook, 2009) could be critically questioned in this industry with very strict standards and working practices.

As a limitation of the study, it may be mentioned that the non-participant observation was limited to only a few hours in the company and consequently only to isolated snapshots. The actual implementation of individual learning at the different learning locations as well as the social interactions between apprentice and coaches could not be observed. Consequently, challenges and tensions in the actual implementation of the training activities could not be identified. Furthermore, the people interviewed were selected by the companies, so there is a risk that certain perceptions are over-represented. Nevertheless, through the multiple-case design, a general picture could be gained of how do aircraft companies manage the tension between the structured and the more incidental part of in-company learning in their training and learning environment because of safety-critical issues.

Number of the interviewed persons in their functions

Training manager Apprentices Vocational school teachers
11 17 2

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Acknowledgements

The research was funded by t the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, funding No. PI 418/6-1) in Germany. Application made by Prof Dr Matthias Pilz, University of Cologne. We would like to show our gratitude to Prof Dr Lorna Unwin and Dr Ann Lahiff for sharing their expertise with us during the research, and we thank the reviewers for their constructive comments.

Corresponding author

Junmin Li can be contacted at: junmin.li@uni-koeln.de

About the authors

Junmin Li is Senior Researcher at the Chair of Economics and Business Education, University of Cologne, Germany. Her research interests are international comparative research in VET, VET school development and teaching and learning.

Matthias Pilz is Professor of economics and business education at the University of Cologne. He is Director of the German Research Center for Comparative Vocational Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.). His major research areas include international comparative research into vocational education and training, transitions between training and employment as well as teaching and learning.

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