Vocational training offers many answers to labour market challenges

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Apprenticeships may not yet be universally “cool”, but their star is certainly on the rise, writes Stephan Howeg.

Stephan Howeg is Chief Marketing Officer and Communications of the Adecco Group. He contributed this op-ed ahead of European Vocational Skills Week on 20-24 November.

What would you say about an engineering apprentice ending up as an executive board member of a global Fortune 500 company? Or what about the thousands of contented former apprentices running, and often owning, the small and medium sized businesses that are the backbone of many economies?

Regrettably, I still often encounter scepticism when I spell out the merits of apprenticeships and work-readiness programs. That’s partly due to structural factors. Grow up in Finland, and there’s a 71% chance you will be exposed to vocational and educational training. Reside in Cyprus, by contrast, and such opportunities are available to barely 16% of young people.

Some of the disparity is due to culture and mindsets. Even today, there are still sharp differences in attitudes to vocational and educational training across the European Union. Respondents in Malta, Finland, the Czech Republic, the UK and Italy are generally very positive about the prestige and standing of such schemes, according to a survey by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training. In France, Hungary, Belgium and the Netherlands, by contrast, reactions are significantly more negative.

That is troubling on various counts. While EU economies are broadly back in growth mode, unemployment, especially among the young, remains a source of worry in many member states. Although the evidence shows vocational and educational training for young people improves their chances, too few are aware of it. That is particularly worrying in view of the rising importance of early exposure to work amid a rapidly changing labour environment with growing skills shortages and the rise of the gig economy.

What explains Europeans’ different views?  Expectations play a part. Apprenticeships, be it in larger companies or small family businesses, were once the norm – think of all those European crafts and guilds where knowledge was passed on by teaching young professionals directly on the job, complementing what they learned at school.

In German-speaking Europe, that tradition has survived. Apprenticeships and schemes combining classroom learning with work experience and training retain significant prestige. In Switzerland, conventional wisdom has it that an academic student is the one taking the “soft” option, whereas apprentices truly accomplish something.

But elsewhere, apprentices’ status has dropped – often victim to the supposed superiority of a more academic university training. Some young people today even say a bachelor’s degree is no longer good enough, with a master’s the new minimum requirement for a good job.

The push for greater academia comes from noble intentions. The quest to level out inequalities has prompted a sharp improvement in access to tertiary education worldwide. That is absolutely desirable. But it has had the perverse effect of creating legions of highly educated academic young people – who can’t find jobs. At the same time, businesses has started ringing alarm bells about declining access to young people ready to learn trades at the workplace.

Parents’ good intentions have often contributed. But pushing children onto an academic path has often also meant overriding skills that would have best flourished in the real world of work, be it trade and commerce (as florists, bakers or salespeople), services (as bankers, insurance staff or civil servants) or in manufacturing.

Far from being yesterday’s solution, apprenticeships are among the answers to the future demands of the labour market. They equip young people with cutting edge skills, shape their personal characteristics and – crucial today – are a breeding ground for innovation, feeding off youngsters’ intuitive digital skills.

Vocational training helps young people to take responsibility early on; it teaches the importance of teamwork and instils the value of respect – whether for health and safety rules or one’s co-workers and bosses. Importantly, young people become a vital piece of the country’s production and productivity chain, earning a wage and thus consuming, paying taxes and building their benefits portfolio.

The advantages of such schemes go beyond improving an individual’s employability. Employers gain trained talent and staff who have benefited from exposure to the labour market. And, while boosting university entrance rates may remain socially laudable, so too is reducing unemployment and raising individuals’ satisfaction levels – an attribute that gains in importance as new generations enter the world of work.

Fortunately, the pendulum is swinging back. National and EU policy makers have started to recognize the benefits of vocational and educational training, particularly given the high unemployment of recent years. Apprenticeships may not yet be universally “cool”, but their star is certainly on the rise.

From November 20-24, all eyes will be on European Vocational Skills Week, an initiative designed to raise the attractiveness and status of vocational education and training and showcase excellence and quality. As an ambassador for the EU week, I am proud to share this message where and whenever I can. After all, I, too, was an apprentice once …