Apprenticeship Systems – what do we know?

Adapted from “Overcoming the work-inexperience gap through quality apprenticeships – the ILO’s contribution” by Michael Axmann and Christine Hofmann, ILO Skills and Employability Department

Article | 03 June 2013
The global youth employment crisis has brought apprenticeship back to the policy agenda. It is recognized that countries with well-established apprenticeship systems tend to be better at managing school-to-work transitions for youth, and enjoy lower ratios of youth unemployment rate to adult unemployment rate. Apprenticeships are effective means of bridging school and the world of work for young people by making it possible for them to acquire work experience along with technical and professional training.

However, “export” of apprenticeship systems to developing countries has, in many cases, failed and thus doubts about the transferability of successful apprenticeship systems persist in the international skills development community.

The ILO defines apprenticeship in its Apprenticeship Recommendation (R60, 1939):
… the expression apprenticeship means any system by which an employer undertakes by contract to employ a young person and to train him [or her] or have him [or her] trained systematically for a trade for a period the duration of which has been fixed in advance and in the course of which the apprentice is bound to work in the employer's service
and its Vocational Training Recommendation (R117, 1962), which defines apprenticeship as:
Systematic long-term training for a recognized occupation taking place substantially within an undertaking or under an independent craftsman should be governed by a written contract of apprenticeship and be subject to established standards”
Apprenticeship’s implementation in complex modern labour markets requires high levels of trust and cooperative behaviour between public authorities, employers, training providers and young people. The cooperation and trust required can only be achieved by robust social dialogue, ie the negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information among representatives of governments, employers and workers on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy. Governments should play a facilitation role while employers organizations and trade unions need to be in the driver’s seat – to a much larger extent than what is commonly the case in many national skills development systems that do not include apprenticeship.

In apprenticeship, social dialogue needs to be the primary means for (a) selecting apprenticeship trades; (b) designing the governance and financial set-up of the system; (c) determining skills standards, the legal status of apprentices, trainers and apprenticeship firms; (d) negotiating working conditions and labour rights and so forth.

Formal apprenticeship depends on a clear governance structure which needs to take account of costs and benefits for employers and at the same time the rights of apprentices and the benefits to them.
  • Employers and their organizations benefit from apprenticeships in many ways – (a) employers have their staff trained according to practical requirements, (b) apprentices contribute to production while constituting a unique source of recruitment, (c) apprentices constitute a “pool” of competent labour for companies and for a sector as a whole due to the transferable nature of the skills acquired, (d) in addition, apprenticeship increases the awareness of the importance of learning within a company. Where apprentices are recruited as full-time employees the return from apprenticeship on the firm’s investment is substantial (Steedman 2012).
  • For young people, (a) apprenticeships open a first job that can lead to career-long productive employment, (b) it combines training with earning, (c) it opens access to social protection and coverage under national labour law. A number of recent studies confirm that a completed apprenticeship greatly increases a young person’s chance of being employed (Quintini et al. 2007). However, safeguards are also needed to protect youths against hazardous working conditions, or being exploited as cheap labour while not acquiring the expected skills.
  • Governments also benefit from apprenticeship systems in many ways, including (a) cost sharing for skills development (even with financial incentives), (b) improved matching of training to labour market demand (Steedman 2012).
Lessons learnt so far
  • Sector-based approaches in skills development sustain PPPs and assure the quality of formal apprenticeships and the quality of apprentices’ subsequent employment;
  • Combining classroom and workplace learning enables employers to match training to their needs and allows for relevant training that is innovative, responsive to labour market needs and leads to higher productivity, better working conditions and higher transferability of skills within and across sectors;
  • Considering an appropriate balance between specific and transferable skills, also reinforcing core skills such as problem solving, teamwork, and communication, allows to build a pool of competent workers for specific sectors in a sustainable manner;
  • Providing a structured system of skills tracking, testing and certification, against competencies defined in advance, improve skills signaling (the acknowledgement of skills by employers), and the predictability of the performance of newly hired workers;
  • Combining training with earnings (“learn as you earn”), access to social protection and respect for labour rights, and higher likelihood of post-training employment makes apprenticeship attractive to young people;
  • Employment services expand young peoples’ awareness of formal apprenticeships and the kinds of jobs they can lead to and avoid gender stereotyping so that formal apprenticeships can broaden career choices for young women and men;
  • Incorporating entrepreneurship education with technical training inspires young people interested in starting their own business later to choose apprenticeships and raises the social status of vocational education and training;
ILO involvement
The ILO has agreed on key areas of interest for formal apprenticeships, and identified main success factors around which formal apprenticeship programmes bridge training to productive and decent work. The ILO is interested in promoting a better understanding of:
  • the role of social dialogue and the meaningful involvement of employers’ and workers’ associations in apprenticeship design;
  • definitions and responsibilities of the participating partners in companies and with training providers;
  • financing mechanisms for formal apprenticeship systems, including PPPs;
  • appropriate national apprenticeship legislation;
  • expanding apprenticeships into non-traditional industries and new occupations;
  • vastly increasing the number of apprenticeships available to young people by overcoming barriers to apprenticeship in smaller enterprises.