The article has been published in Nordic Labour Journal in 2013.
In recent months the EU debate has accelerated as more and more young people struggle to find jobs. Nearly six million people below 25 are now unemployed. In the first quarter of 2013 youth unemployment stood at 23.5 percent, and in some countries more than half of young people do not have jobs.
A new alliance
That’s why the Commission launched ‘The European Alliance for Apprenticeships’ in June this year, which takes a cue from the German experience (read the press release here). The purpose is to improve the quality of existing apprenticeships within the EU. There is no overarching model for the training, which differs between countries – even between German states. Among the signatories to the Commission’s declaration are representatives from trade unions and employers. The Commission also hopes for support and economic contribution from authorities, businesses, trade unions, chambers of commerce, institutes for apprenticeships, youth representatives and job centres.
“We need to get together and act now to make sure young people get the skills they need in order to succeed in life,” EU Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said at the alliance launch.
Studies show that apprenticeships and practical placements often lead to permanent jobs. Job specific degrees also increase the chance of getting a job compared to an open degree. In Germany nearly 200,000 youths start out as apprentices every year, and there is great demand for labour.
Popular in Finland – for adults
So vocational training differs greatly throughout the EU.
“Generally speaking, every country has its own education system with its own characteristics,” says Seppo Hyppönen, head of adult education at the Helsinki based Finnish National Board of Education.
What is called an apprenticeship contract within the EU is known as a training agreement in Finland. It hardly includes any youths at all, despite economic state support. Employers taking on a young person receive a monthly state grant of up to €800 in the first year, €500 for the second and €300 for the third. Despite this, interest is low. The situation is the total opposite to the one in Germany.
In Sweden too the state support has just been increased in the hope that more companies will offer jobs. The aim is to get half of vocational students into apprenticeship schemes within seven years. A new form of employment called ‘gymnasial lärlingsanställning’ (upper secondary education apprenticeship) is also due to be introduced.
Last spring the EU Commission asked Sweden to introduce a more comprehensive apprenticeship scheme in order to support young people with low education as well as immigrants.
Although the Minister for Education Jan Björklund (Liberal People’s Party) has been talking about a ‘regime change’, the support might not do much to change the situation as Swedish businesses, just like Finnish employers, are tailored to welcome people from theoretical educational institutions. One in five Finns in vocational training are getting it through apprenticeships. In 2011 nearly 57,000 people were in apprenticeships, down from more than 70,000 people in 2008. This reflects cuts to the public sector and reduced business activity. But nearly all those in apprenticeships are also adults. They are already in working life but lack the formal skills for their job and need to get a diploma. They are, for obvious reasons, very motivated. As a result, a higher number of diplomas go to people who have been apprentices rather than to people who have attended vocational training. Employment rates are also higher for those who studied.
Seppo Hyppönen says 99 percent of all those who study within an apprenticeship scheme are adults.
“And it is a very flexible system.”
The government has now promised to develop training for youths, including apprenticeships, but details are still hidden within next year’s budget, which has still not been published.
Social and health care
Jeanette Harf, education coordinator at the Swedish language upper secondary vocational education institution Prakticum in Helsinki, says 110-120 of their 1,100 students are on apprenticeships. They are also all adults.
“Most are training for the social and health care sector, where there is a great demand for people,” says Harf. Many want to gain qualifications for a job they are already in, for instance as enrolled nurses. It is often the employer who takes the initiative as they face a shortage of skilled workers. It is usually easy to find placements for the students, because they will often be doing the same job as before and get paid a salary while they finish their training.
It is also common for adult students to acquire skills in order to become school assistants.
Prakticum also trains hairdressers via apprenticeships, but it is harder for them to find suitable workplaces because the employers demand some previous knowledge of the trade.
“We also have apprenticeships for entrepreneurs and eco hairdressers who study while being ordinary employees or self employed. They have coaches who work within the trade or a mentoring company.”
The training is 70-80 percent practical work, while the rest is theory. Coaches in the workplace plan the education and assess the progress three times a year.
In Finland there is apprenticeship training for more than 300 different occupations, but three sectors cover 85 percent of the students. The apprenticeships last from four months to four years depending on the subject and previous knowledge.
For some youths only
Prakticum’s headmaster Harriet Ahlnäs reckons apprenticeships are suitable for some young people who fail to study in a normal school setting and risk becoming marginalised.
“But in that case you need to find a workplace, and that is not easy for a 16 or 17 year old.”
She feels an ordinary vocational education is the best alternative for most young people, when this includes a period of practical work which covers one sixth of the course period.
So despite the good intentions it seems the EU Commission will be facing an uphill battle in Finland and Sweden.