Youth skills

The apprenticeship innovation challenge

In a speech at the International Conference on Innovations in Apprenticeships, ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, outlines how new types of apprenticeships are needed to tackle the youth skills gap.

Statement | 04 July 2018
© InstituteForApprenticeships
Thank you very much Sangheon. Let me wish everyone a good morning, and be the first to welcome you all to this extremely important International Conference on Innovations in Apprenticeships. The ILO is co-organizing this event in collaboration with the OECD and the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN), with vital support from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. I want to express appreciation to all our partners in that regard.

Your presence here in such numbers attests both to the importance of the subject matter, and attests to the importance of the partnerships that are necessarily inherent if apprenticeships are to work effectively and on the basis of the quality that we seek from them.

Now, my experience is that if I take the risk of asking a Labour Minister from any of our 187 member States what her or his priority problem is, I would say that 9 times out of 10 it is jobs for young people; how to get young people into the labour market in satisfactory circumstances and that in itself says a great deal about the issues that we have before us.

It is a paradox, is it not, of our times that when so many young people cannot find decent jobs – and we know that if you are under 25 years old are three times more likely to be unemployed than others in the labour force – at the same time as we have that penury of jobs for youth, we know that many employers simply cannot recruit workers with the skills that they seek. So we have the much commented-upon situation of skills mismatch in our labour markets.

This situation exists against a background of unprecedented transformational change in the world of work, something that the ILO is focusing upon as we look at the future of work as our centenary approaches. We are pretty clear about what the major drivers of transformative change at work are – technological innovation; the challenge of demographic tendencies, contrasting in different regions of the world; the challenge of climate change, and of action taken to stop and mitigate its effects; and the rather uncertain forward march of globalization.

In all of these issues focusing upon skills – what the skills demands of the future will be, anticipating those skill needs and how to fulfil them – seems to occupy an extremely important strategic part of policy-makers’ challenges as we move forward.

It is interesting, isn’t it, that apprenticeships are probably the oldest public private partnership in history – they have been around for a matter of centuries. Our opportunity today is to reflect upon the tried and tested benefits of successful apprenticeship schemes, but also to juxtapose their record of achievement with the need for innovation in apprenticeships, as in much else in the world of work, against the background of transformative change. With that in mind, I want to point to a couple of things that are crucial to this imperative of innovation in apprenticeships.

The first of those, linked very much to the work the ILO is undertaking upon the future of work and the considerations of our Global Commission on the Future of Work that will report to us in January, relates to the fact that, as is well understood by all, that when we talk today about skills development and skills acquisition, we are necessarily talking about a life-long process. The notion of life-long learning is a very well-established imperative.

The question that then arises is if we have to discard the notion that we acquire skills and education in the first 20 or 25 years of our life, then work for about 40 years and then retire, as sequential phases in life – and understand that these things are in fact intertwined over the period of a working life – the question that then arises is how apprenticeships fit into that. Traditionally apprenticeships have been associated with a particular moment in one’s working life. That sits uncomfortably, at least without innovation, besides the notion of the need for life-long learning. So how do we situate apprenticeships and the development of apprenticeship systems against that background of life-long learning? That is our first challenge.

The second challenge is that apprenticeships, as they have developed over very long periods of time in different countries and in different ways, have become necessarily deeply rooted in quite dense and sometimes complex institutional arrangements – regulations, processes of social dialogue, interaction with educational systems; I would even say social norms – for someone who came to Switzerland in the mid-1980s, quite near the beginning of my working life, discovering a system and an attitude to apprenticeships in this country that did not exist in my country of origin was quite educational.

At this moment in many parts of the world and in many regards, established situations and arrangements in the labour market are changing - sometimes they are under strain, against our better wishes perhaps, and sometimes they are simply evolving as industrial organizations and employer and employee organizational arrangements evolve. So here is our second challenge – how do we ensure that the necessary institutional underpinnings for successful quality apprenticeship systems remain in place or can evolve as the institutions of the world of work evolve.

This brings me to another thought, which concerns the efforts made by many of us to learn from and to some extent replicate successful apprenticeship systems in one member State of the ILO in other member States – the exportability, in crude terms, of successful apprenticeship systems seems to me to be very challenging, to the extent that if we do not have the necessary institutional underpinnings in place, we do perhaps have to think in new and original ways about how to bring them about. The world of work is changing and apprenticeships need to evolve with them – hence the importance of our focus on innovation.

That said, we have seen, at least in the international policy arena, a remarkable renaissance of interest in apprenticeships. It is almost as if apprenticeships have skipped a generation. Apprenticeships were part of my parents’ working existence but never part of mine or my generation’s; they seem to be coming back. There seems to be a rediscovery of apprenticeships as a key element of labour market policy and skill development.

This has been very evident in the G20 proceedings, and Sangheon has referred to that. Our social partners from the B20 and the L20 deserve great credit for getting apprenticeships back up there. It was after all the joint positions of our social partners that moved our Governments to focus on apprenticeships in the way that they have in recent years. So we have to take forward in concrete ways this renewed focus at the international level on apprenticeships.

Here at the ILO we believe both that the ILO has an important role to play in this debate, and in the development of capacities on apprenticeships – in the G20, but beyond the G20 as well. The ILO, particularly in the wake of its reflections on the future of work, will need to be innovative and ground-breaking in its own approaches to skills development, and we intend to do that.

We have launched already our concept of quality apprenticeships which has a number of components – six building blocks that we believe provide a firm foundation as we seek a way forward. These include:
  • meaningful social dialogue;
  • related to what I have said about institutional underpinnings, it requires a robust regulatory framework;
  • clear roles and responsibilities and definition thereof amongst our tripartite partners – governments, employers and workers - and other stakeholders, including education and training providers;
  • equitable funding arrangements;
  • strong labour market relevance;
  • and finally, it requires inclusiveness. We are in the era when the United Nations is very much set upon the imperative of leaving nobody behind.
So, that is to give you a flavour of where the ILO stands on these issues, and what some of the key challenges before us will be. This Conference will be extremely important in helping to develop the ILO’s own thinking as we move forward, and feeding into our reflections as we move towards our centenary next year, on the future of work and how apprenticeships fit into that.

Thank you for being here, and I would like to thank in particular my fellow panellists for their personal presence and for the support that they and their organizations and countries bring to this process. Thank you.