Reseacher: How to overcome the EU apprenticeship gap

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High unemployment, particularly among young Europeans, demands policy responses. Andrew McCoshan explains why care needs to be taken in transposing one country’s success to others less advanced.

Andrew McCoshan is an associate fellow at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Education and Industry, and a director of Ecorys Research and Consulting. He was recently the lead author of a study of vocational training for the European Commission and directed a UK study to develop indicators on the responsiveness of vocational qualifications. He was interviewed by EurActiv’s Jeremy Fleming.

What is a dual vocational system?

In the dual vocational system responsibility for training is shared between employers and public providers/the state, and trainees have a contract with their employer and receive a wage or allowance. Trainees receive training on the job with their employer (practical in nature) and further (typically more theoretical) education and training at a local school/college. These are the features which set dual vocational training apart from other arrangements, such as where trainees are based in schools/colleges and receive some on-the-job training, or where trainees are based in schools/colleges and get some form of work-related learning through simulated laboratories or workshops or kitchens, etc., based in the school/college. Under the dual system trainees typically are in training for longer and receive a higher amount of workplace-based training than under other systems.

Has it been attempted in the UK?

Yes and no. Apprenticeships have always been a matter for individual companies and sectors so in that sense one couldn't say that the UK has actually had a systemic approach. This is reinforced by the fact that the dual system in Germany, for example, is part and parcel of a highly structured approach to vocational programmes/qualifications and a highly institutionalised approach to education and training in general (with early tracking of young people into different types of provision in different types of institution).

What is the vocational training background in the UK?

Apprenticeships in the UK are trying to deal with some deep-rooted problems in the vocational training system. Overall, the system suffers from complexity and fragmentation. There are over 16,000 qualifications on the Qualification and Credit Framework, and although some qualifications are recognised as important for labour market entry, the track record of placing people into employment from vocational training programmes is highly variable. This doesn't help the status of vocational training compared to general education so that vocational courses are often the choice of last resort.

As far as employers are concerned, the overall ethos in policy has been to leave it to employers and their sector organisations to tackle their need for skills. As a result, here as well, there is enormous variation in the extent to which employers work collaboratively to address their training needs. Providers meanwhile have operated within funding frameworks which mean they have been led by learner choice (choice which is very difficult in the context of so many qualifications) and have variable engagement with businesses.

Are there any other challenges facing apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships seek to tackle these problems by placing employers in the driving seat, and ensuring a good fit between the training and employment. The development of apprenticeships has met a number of challenges. These include:

  • Apprenticeships being used by existing employees to certify existing skills (a consequence of the underlying problem of our weak vocational training system).
  • Variation in the structure of apprenticeships across sectors, reducing public understanding and interfering with signals in the labour market.
  • Questionable employer commitment as indicated in surveys which show that many employers would find other solutions to their training problems if apprenticeships didn't exist.

What can be learned from the UK example?

Although the UK has had its problems with apprenticeships, I think it offers some examples of what to look out for in the development process which are likely to be useful for other countries which are in positions which are less conducive to apprenticeship development, i.e. where there is weaker involvement of employers in vocational training, weak social dialogue mechanisms, where connections between training providers and employers have traditionally been poor, and where the vocational qualifications/programmes system has been weak and is undergoing reform.

What might some of those lessons be?

The difficulty with using the dual vocational training system as practised in Germany, Austria as an exemplar, is that it has taken many years to develop. Replicating those conditions (i.e. strong social partnership and a culture amongst employers where the need to invest in training is taken for granted) is very challenging. In particular, we mustn't forget that the system in these countries is underpinned by a general belief in the value of training and that this is linked to the value of products/services produced. The UK, like Spain and Portugal, to mention just two countries, still suffers from a legacy of a large proportion of production being in low value goods which require low skills to produce. In these economies many employers compete for labour on the basis of cost rather than quality.

A potential way forward in such economies is for government to provide the framework within which apprenticeships can be developed by segments of the economy where the need for skills is high or rising and where the value of investing in skills through apprenticeships can be demonstrated comparatively easily.

Can different methods of dual vocational training be transplanted from one country to another?

It is often said that – given the impossibility of replicating all the essential elements of dual system countries elsewhere – the approach should be to transfer parts of the system as dictated by the context of the country doing the importing. The important question is whether doing this really retains the essence of dual training systems or whether it will lead to minor adjustments to systems which ultimately don't succeed in shifting them far enough or fast enough in the direction required. Given where we are at the moment, this remains an open question.

The European Commission set up a help desk earlier this year, what functions does it perform?

The help desk has been set up as part of the project entitled ‘Providing targeted advice on ESF support to apprenticeship and traineeship schemes’. Its main objective  is to provide bespoke assistance for the planning, establishment and management of apprenticeship and traineeship schemes including those using ESF funding through responding to ad-hoc questions and demands for support.

The help desk provides tailored information and assistance to policy makers at national, regional and local level in the areas of youth employment, education and training policies, ESF managing authorities, relevant national and regional agencies and social partners. The help desk acts as a broker between those who need support and those who can provide it – specialised policy experts on apprenticeship and traineeship schemes, including high-level experts, as well as other stakeholders with experience to share. The help desk is able to respond to queries in six languages [English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Polish] and offers enquiry service via a website form, e-mail or phone, one-to-one advice and tailored consultancy from specialist policy experts.

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