France steps up dual education as EU announces Erasmus for the unemployed

A French scheme pushing for more apprentice mobility within the European Union may serve as a roadmap for ALMA, a EU’s new programme to help young people who are neither in employment nor in education.

The launch of ALMA was one of the highlights of the State of the Union speech delivered on Wednesday (15 September) by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“We must step up our support to those who fall into the gaps – those not in any kind of employment, education or training,”  von der Leyen told lawmakers in Strasbourg during her annual address to the European Parliament.

According to von der Leyen, an EU programme to help young people find short-term work abroad is sorely needed “because they too deserve an experience like Erasmus – to gain skills, to create bonds and help forge their own European identity.”

The idea of boosting professional experiences abroad is not new. The 2020 declaration of EU ministers in charge of vocational education and training (VET) in Osnabrück, Germany put the goal to “facilitate mobility for learning and work in Europe” as one of the bloc’s deliverables by 2025.

France’s drive to increase the number of employment experiences abroad for those in apprenticeship training is a case in point.

Despite the 2018 reform of vocational training, arranging a short-term experience abroad for apprentices remains difficult, as employers often do not see the benefit of letting their workforce spend time in another country.

However, things are improving. Before the pandemic closed borders, 4,080 apprentices were sent abroad in 2018-2019, a 30% increase on the previous year, making France the second biggest apprentice sender behind Germany.

Meanwhile, the number of students going into apprenticeships is also set to grow as the social stigma attached to vocational training slowly fades and young people seek the security of employment.

According to Aurélie Bost, a mobility project coordinator for the chamber of crafts in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine  region, southwestern France, “the COVID crisis helped to increase the number of apprentices because of the financial support from the state”.

Apprenticeships were given a central place in the French recovery plan, France Relance, with significant hiring incentives on apprenticeship and ‘professionalisation’ contracts.

But while things are improving, some societal prejudices remain against vocational training, and apprenticeships as a lesser form of education.

“I think the reality is it’s very difficult to change the education system in France, because we teachers don’t want to change the system,” Bost told EURACTIV, pointing out that teachers will give information about going to university but often omit the possibility of vocational training.

Including a study abroad component into the training may be one way to improve status of vocational training.

According to Laure Coudret-Laut, director of the French Erasmus+ agency, mobility is “an important way to increase the prestige of the apprenticeship way of being trained.”

On top of that, travelling to another country can carry immense benefit for the apprentices themselves, many of whom come from underprivileged background and have never been abroad.

“A lot of the youth who went to apprenticeship didn’t choose it, they went to apprenticeships because they were not going into general education. And some of them lack really confidence”, Coudret-Laut said.

“You know, when you arrive in another country, and you don’t speak the language, if you’re bit shy, or if you’re not confident enough, you don’t talk to people, it’s like a stop. You don’t want to go forward and learn things,” said Rémi, a 28 year-old apprentice in pastry and bakery whose experiences abroad helped him gain confidence.

At a European level, more funds are now available to help students like Rémi gain autonomy, language skills and confidence.

Of the €20.4 billion foreseen for study abroad experiences, at least €4.39 billion or 21.5% is budgeted for students in VET, a significant increase on the 17% dedicated to it in the last financial period. That might be well needed to boost employment after the pandemic.

“Quality apprenticeships can make such a difference in helping people get into the labour market,” Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, said on Tuesday (14 September.)

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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