International cooperation is needed to prove how vital apprenticeships are

More data collection and research will support the future development of apprenticeships, writes Stephanie Wilde

October 21, 2017
Apprentice mechanics
Source: Alamy

In the context of a rapidly changing society, the increasing demands placed upon a diverse education system and an evolving labour market, research into the impact of apprenticeship programmes is more vital than ever.

Why are politicians and researchers internationally interested in apprenticeships? Which purposes do they serve?

In some countries the apprenticeship is a core, mainstream pathway, leading to stable employment (Denmark, Germany, Switzerland). In other countries it may provide a “second chance” for learners who have not flourished in mainstream schooling, leading to a focus on older learners (Finland, for example).

Other countries feature formal apprenticeship as a “niche” pathway in their education and training provision (Egypt, India). Hybrid purposes are evident too – offering a viable and attractive alternative to higher education, as well as appropriate training for skilled jobs in the economy (think England, and Australia).

However, these aims are not fully compatible with each other. It is difficult to envisage how apprenticeship can offer an effective “second chance” model and a high status alternative to higher education simultaneously. The combined challenges of informal training and low skilled jobs, and the primacy of higher education, mean that the role of the apprenticeship can be compromised in contexts where informal training leads to employment, and has a strong currency and long-standing tradition, as well as in countries where the route to higher education is perceived to be the first choice option by many schools, parents and employers.

Successive governments in the UK have hailed apprenticeships as a panacea for youth unemployment and the skills gap. However, the policy and purposes associated with the apprenticeship in the UK do not have the required clarity, and the processes of policy implementation have been compromised.

This has been most apparent recently with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in April, which has been the subject of confusion among employers, learners and training providers.

Political will, commitment and resource allocation are all essential for the apprenticeship to have any chance of becoming sustainable. Rapid policy change, as seen in England in recent decades, jeopardises the stability of these factors.

Differences in apprenticeship provision in different countries are embedded within their cultural, historical, educational and economic contexts. Differing expectations of education and work, and the complex processes of transition between and within them, all affect the ways in which apprenticeship in each country is defined and structured, as well as the learning processes involved.

One characteristic that differentiates the apprenticeship from higher and general education is the pivotal role that it accords to employers and the labour market. Buy-in and commitment from employers, employer associations, trade unions and other stakeholders are essential for apprenticeship to serve as a sustainable pathway of education and training. The currency of the apprenticeship “brand” on the labour market, and the recognition of the qualifications that it leads to, as well as the learning experience that it represents, affects the attractiveness of the pathway and the incentives for learners and employers to get involved.

Greater international cooperation in the field of apprenticeships, as well as increased longitudinal data collection and research will support future development. This includes working together internationally to provide more reliable and comparable international data. This would support the development of the apprenticeship as a sustainable pathway that is attractive to young people and employers, and offers a high-quality route into stable employment in an uncertain labour market. 

Stephanie Wilde is research officer at the University of Oxford Department of Education.

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