By Mark Keese.
Apprenticeships provide opportunities to build up new skills and knowledge both on and off the job. When they are of high quality, apprenticeships promote a smoother transition from school to work for young people, giving them a good start to their working careers. They do so by providing a good mix of basic competences and job-specific skills as well as valuable work experience. In addition, apprentices are usually able to earn a wage, even if small, while studying. Quality apprenticeships can also provide an attractive learning pathway for youth at risk of dropping out early from initial education. Employers also benefit as they get support to identify and train workers while adding to their productive capacity.
Recognising the great potential of apprenticeship training, the OECD has been working closely with the G20 Employment Working Group and the European Commission to identify the key features of quality apprenticeships (OECD-G20 note on quality apprenticeships, September 2012). This has included two international conferences to share good practice and identify the key priorities for further action to promote quality apprenticeships (G20-OECD-EC Conference on Quality Apprenticeships for Giving Youth a Better Start in the Labour Market, April 2014; 2nd G20-OECD Conference on Promoting Quality Apprenticeships, February 2015). Much of this work has been carried out in consultation with all stakeholders, including representatives of governments, education and training institutions, unions, employers, and young people.
The key message emerging from this work is that the success of apprenticeship programmes – notably, their value to youth and their attractiveness to employers – lies in their quality and that they are appropriately adapted to individual and local specificities. This is vitally important as many initiatives to expand apprenticeships have failed because some of the key elements to make them attractive to employers and young people were not put in place.
There are a number of obstacles to improving the quality of apprenticeship programmes that must be overcome. The OECD has identified three key challenges faced by countries: ensuring access to high-quality programmes; making apprenticeships more valuable to youth; and making apprenticeships more attractive to employers. Jointly with G20 countries, the OECD has collected a range of good-practice examples from many countries of ways to overcome these challenges.
Ensuring access to high-quality programmes
Giving better access to quality apprenticeships to those who would benefit most remains challenging for many countries. Apprenticeship systems often impose eligibility restrictions in terms of age or educational qualifications which may exclude disadvantaged youth and individuals with prior work experience. But this is changing. For example, England has eased access for non-youth to engage in apprenticeships. In Australia, subsidies are offered to employers hiring workers from vulnerable groups. Some countries are also expanding the sectors and occupations covered by apprenticeships, which not only helps to better keep up with changes in skill demands but also encourages the participation of women in apprenticeships.
Making apprenticeships more valuable to youth
Many countries also need to improve the recognition and value of apprenticeships as an attractive career choice for youth. Apprenticeships are often seen as a poor second-class choice relative to continuing on in more general academic studies, even if this form of learning may subsequently lead to better employment opportunities. Apprenticeships may also be seen as a trap, notably when there are not enough bridges down the road to higher-level education programmes or when they do not lead to a formal qualification or certification. Interest in undertaking an apprenticeship may be limited if programmes are only offered in a narrow range of occupations and do not cover expanding employment sectors. The willingness of youth to undertake an apprenticeship will also be low if the training is of poor quality, working conditions and pay are not competitive and the programme does not lead to the acquisitions of skills that are valued by employers (Figure 1). Italy’s 2012 labour code was reformed to limit the use of apprenticeship contracts as cheap labour.
Making apprenticeships more attractive to employers
The engagement of employers is a crucial element for the success of an apprenticeship system However, they often face a number of barriers to taking on apprenticeships, including a fixed length of training (often too long and with rigid start- and end-dates) that does not take into account the actual progress of apprentices (Figure 2); off-the-job training that is ill-adapted to the needs of employers; and high effective wage and non-wage costs associated with taking on apprentices, despite the fact that financial incentives are usually in place to reduce these costs. Effective partnerships between employers and trade unions are also another key element of successful apprenticeship schemes, as is seen in Germany and Austria. This can ensure, for example, that apprenticeships are offered where there is demand.
More still to be done
Apprenticeships have many potential benefits but these will only be realised if a number of barriers to their take-up and expansion are overcome. The key requirement is to build a quality apprenticeship system that improves equity of access, results in valuable skills and work experience being acquired and which is attractive to both employers and potential apprentices. All stakeholders can do more to achieve this.
Cover photo credits: ©www.shutterstock.com/Goodluz