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School-to-work transition

The lure of apprenticeships in times of crisis

Apprenticeships have been around for centuries but they are now getting a lot of fresh attention as the world struggles to defuse the potentially explosive youth employment crisis.

Feature | 15 October 2012
GENEVA (ILO News) – Determined to avert the rise of a lost generation, the world is increasingly looking to apprenticeships as a silver bullet against the global youth jobs crisis.

Any solution obviously would be complex but the renewed focus on apprenticeships and their job-creation potential is welcome at a time when 75 million young men and women are unemployed.

Good apprenticeships provide young people with the skills they need to enter the marketplace and match the supply of skilled labour to the needs of employers. They can help reduce the incidence and duration of unemployment, while supporting economic growth.

“Better and more broadly available apprenticeships and other training opportunities, can reduce youth unemployment and poverty when combined with national efforts to spur job growth,” says Christine Evans-Klock, who heads the ILO’s Skills and Employability Department.

Demonstrated benefits

A lot of people are looking to apprenticeships as the silver bullet in tackling the youth employment crisis.”
The positive impact of well-designed apprenticeships – and particularly dual systems that combine workplace and classroom-based training – has been clearly demonstrated.

In countries where a fifth or more of all 16-24 year olds are in apprenticeships, such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark – which all have dual systems – youth unemployment is lower than in other European countries where apprenticeships are not that common.

Apprenticeship systems have a centuries-old tradition in some countries but it is only fairly recently that their job creation potential has been gaining widespread acceptance, says Michael Axman, a skills development expert at the ILO.

“A lot of people are looking to apprenticeships as the silver bullet in tackling the youth employment crisis.”

“Interest has really boomed in recent months. There’s an increasing number of conferences around the world on apprenticeships, and we’re getting a lot of phone calls from constituents seeking advice on how to set up a good apprenticeship system,” says Axman.

While the wholesale export of even the most tried-and-tested apprenticeships – such as the much vaunted German system – makes little sense, countries can pick and choose elements that can be adapted to their own needs.

Axman believes it is possible for developing, emerging and developed economies to set up apprenticeship systems, citing Haiti, Jordan and Israel as countries that have recently expressed strong interest in doing so.

Private sector involvement

However countries choose to set up apprenticeship programmes, involvement of the private sector is fundamental and must be a starting point, says Axmann.

“What is needed is a commitment from companies and preferably whole sectors.”

One of the main reasons for relatively smooth school-to-work transitions in dual system countries is that the availability of apprenticeships is closely linked to the needs of employers.

Worker organizations also have an important role to play in the design of quality apprenticeships, while the government needs to assure quality basic education, facilitate private sector involvement and share the costs of the dual training system.

Improving and rethinking

There is also scope for scaling up, strengthening and improving apprenticeship programmes in countries that already have them.

This is all the more important as the emergence of new jobs – for example in the clean energy sector – means new skills are needed.

Delivering quality apprenticeships entails ensuring that the curriculum is relevant to the needs of today’s world of work. In some cases this involves a rethink of the way skills are imparted, with less focus of memorization and more on analytical thought, says Axmann.

“Rather than a brain like a computer with a small processor and a huge memory, what is needed to succeed in today’s world of work is a brain with a much bigger processor unit.”

The call for action on the youth employment crisis adopted at the International Labour Conference in June 2012 highlights the importance of apprenticeships.
It urges governments to seriously consider improving the range and types of  apprenticeships by:
  • complementing learning at the workplace with more structured institutional learning;
  • upgrading the training skills of master craftspersons and trainers overseeing the apprenticeships;
  • including literacy training and livelihood skills
  • strengthening community involvement
  • ensuring apprenticeships provide a real learning experience
  • regulating and monitoring apprenticeships