Five EU member states with successful apprenticeship systems have united to share knowledge with lagging countries, in advance of new European Commission proposals to promote the schemes as a way to address youth unemployment.
Business federations of Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland held a conference in Brussels on 26 April to brainstorm on how best to present and transpose successful apprenticeship systems to other EU states.
With youth unemployment soaring across Europe, the apprenticeship – or dual education – model is seen as an efficient way of bringing youngsters closer to the job market by building their skills.
“Companies turn teenagers into adults: they get responsibility, trust, use expensive machinery, play a meaningful role and gain self-confidence," Michael Kaas Andersen, managing director of the Danish Vocational Education and Training institute, told delegates.
"They learn the values of adults. You can teach that at school but you cannot teach it firsthand. Some things can only be implicitly understood from experience.”
Andersen said that in Denmark selected schoolchildren spend two six-month stints to work as apprentices in companies with four or five weeks at school in between.
Stefan Wolter, managing director of the Swiss Coordination Centre for Research in Education, said major obstacles to apprenticeship schemes included the need for firms to have incentives that make apprenticeship training superior to hiring skilled workers.
Such incentives need to be built holistically into the general framework for education regulation, Wolter said, explaining that it would not be easy for companies to attempt to introduce schemes alone without the support of larger employers networks and the state machinery.
EU has criticised member states for failures
Last year, the EU national leaders addressed country-specific recommendations to seven member states on apprenticeships – including Spain and Britain – highlighting the need to develop better systems.
Representatives of Spanish employers groups present at the meeting said they are currently negotiating with the Danish to see how a successful system can be developed in Spain.
Andrew McCoshan, of the Centre for Education and Industry at the University of Warwick, told delegates that “the UK structure for vocational training is very weak” because too much is left to employers to manage, and due to a culture which values academic qualification more highly.
Current reforms in the UK are seeking to create more uniformity within the apprentice system, McCoshan said.
Alliance for Apprenticeships
The newly established EU Commission helpdesk for advice on apprenticeship and traineeship schemes was established in February to provide policy advice on setting up and running apprenticeship and traineeship programmes.
The Helpdesk is aimed at policymakers within the member states, and is funded by the European Social Fund.
Meanwhile in June, the Commission will launch the European Alliance for Apprenticeships. It will bring together business, social partners, government and youth representatives, in an effort to promote the benefits successful apprenticeship schemes and find ways to build them up.
The measure forms part of the broader Youth Guarantee Scheme approved by EU leaders in December 2012 (see background).