ETF partner countries and the European Alliance for Apprenticeships
The 10th anniversary event of the European Alliance for Apprenticeships organised by the European Commission was recently celebrated as part of the European Year of Skills (EYS). It provided an opportunity to look at what has been achieved since the EAfA was first launched in 2013, and how apprenticeships will play a core role in ensuring future sustainability, support high levels of employment and provide green and digital skills.
The event, which was broadcast live online, celebrated 20 new members joining the EAfA, eight of which are also ETF partner countries, namely Albania, Georgia, Israel, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Türkiye. The event also marked five years since the adoption of the Council's recommendation on a European Framework for Quality and Effective Apprenticeships (EFQEA), as well as four years since the launch of the European Apprentices Network.
Over 1 million apprenticeships
Joost Korte, Director-General for Employment, provided an overview of the past decade. The EAfA was created to spur the growth of apprenticeships and help tackle youth unemployment in the EU, which averaged 26.4% in 2013. Korte noted that this figure has halved, and that close to 400 members have joined the EAfA, pledging over 1 million apprenticeship places.
“The Alliance and the EFQEA have been an inspiration across Europe,” he said, noting that Spain has adopted an ambitious reform of its VET programmes and apprenticeships while France saw a 60% growth in the number of apprenticeships, to 800,000, between 2020 and 2022.
“The situation is a lot better compared to 2013,” said Korte, but many challenges are ahead, with labour shortages across many parts of the economy, and the need to develop skills for the green and digital transitions.
“Apprenticeships are an important goal for the European Year of Skills, to build public awareness about the benefits of apprenticeships. Money for once is not the issue. We are coming out of a long period where the EU budget was quite small for education and skills training, but now there are some very big funds [available] to invest in apprenticeships and VET,” he added.
“In our European DNA”
Chiara Riondino, Head of Vocational Education and Training Unit, DG Employment, said that while apprenticeships were “in our European DNA”, having existed as a form of training for hundreds of years, there is a need to address specific challenges, from making apprenticeships more inclusive to supporting the green and digital transitions.
“There are 1,500 organisations involved [in EFQEA], so we need to leverage this incredible network that we have,” said Riodino. “At a systemic level, we’re going in the right direction.”
Dr Pilvi Torsti, Director of the European Training Foundation (ETF), which supports neighbouring countries to reform their education and training systems in the context of the EU’s external relations policies, said that the development of apprenticeships was happening in different contexts across partner countries.
The ETF has played a key role in the sharing of best practices and has actively supported the inclusion of all stakeholders – ministries, VET agencies, chambers of commerce, trade unions and companies – in partner countries in the EAfA since 2016. The ETF has also supported the reform of apprenticeships and work-based learning in EAfA partner countries.
Stefan Thomas, Senior Human Capital Development Expert – Work-based Learning – Africa Team at the ETF, said the EAfA had been utilised to develop reforms in partner countries and for EU members to share information on implementing apprenticeships and dual programmes.
“Many countries started reforms in 2016–17, and implemented them a year or two later.”
“There’s definitely still room for improvement, but we see a much closer collaboration between schools and companies now compared to a decade ago,” said Thomas.
Apprenticeships are one type of work-based learning, the other being traineeships. Some countries, such as the Western Balkans where the ETF has been particularly active, use dual programmes, with education split between classroom and work-based learning.
“We see more institutions coming in and taking over responsibility [for programmes], which is a very good development. In the Western Balkans, many chambers of commerce are taking over responsibilities in the steering and management of dual programmes,” said Thomas.
EU policies to enhance vocational training in EU candidate countries, such as the 2015 Riga Declaration, which included deliverables on work-based learning and apprenticeships, and the 2020 Osnabrück Declaration on lifelong learning, have been important milestones in helping the roll-out of apprenticeships, added Thomas.
Apprenticeships as a means to secure skilled employees
There was widespread consensus at the event that apprenticeships are highly effective and one of the best ways to up-skill and re-skill workers.
Lina Konstantinopoulou, Policy Director at Eurochambres, highlighted a recent survey showing that over 50,000 European companies had reported a shortage of skilled labour. Apprenticeships can help alleviate this shortage, but unfortunately, Konstantinopoulou said:
“Apprenticeships are still perceived to be for young people. There’s a need to change the culture of lifelong learning.”
Easing critical dependencies
Dr Andrey Girenko, a consultant at ECoVEM, the European Centre of Vocational Excellence in Microelectronics, which is connected to the ETF network, said there is a need to develop new skills and competences to ease critical dependencies, such as imports of microelectronics.
“We are swimming in microelectronics. In this room there are probably 1,000 devices but less than 10% of them are made in Europe, and none are made 100% of European components. Europe is lagging behind,” he said.
Promoting adult apprenticeships has become a key focus of the EAfA and the ETF, and will be instrumental in addressing the talent gap, particularly for fast-paced sectors such as the green and digital sectors. As panel member to the dedicated session on adult apprenticeships on the second day, ETF director, Pilvi Torsti, highlighted the need for flexibility in apprenticeship schemes for greater inclusion of adults and to allow countries facing instability to make the scheme one of their strategic goals.
“Reducing the number of years for the scheme from four to one or two years could represent one way of making the scheme more feasible,” she added.
Jurgen Siebel, Executive Director of the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop), said that one of their studies highlighted a number of barriers to adult apprenticeships.
One issue was institutional barriers, including legal frameworks, and the need for incentives for adult apprenticeships.
“Adults may have different expectations, of say higher remuneration than younger apprenticeships. Outreach and guidance is also called for, and thirdly, there needs to be flexibility in organisations’ delivery of apprenticeships. Adults and employers can struggle with more rigid restraints,” said Siebel.
Hands-on, work-based learning was particularly preferred by adults, he added, being a “powerful way to support adult learning”.
Echoing Konstantinopoulou’s remarks, Siebel said that selling apprenticeships to companies and countries is “an uphill battle even though we know it works”. He said that the concept of adult apprenticeships was harder to understand than apprenticeships for young people, but there are good examples of what “good looks like”, such as Finland.
Finland and Belgium’s experiences
Petri Lempinen, Director General, Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, said the country had been a “kind of super power in adult apprenticeships since the 1990s”, having implemented policies in the wake of its economic recession. In 2021, one-third of VET students aged between 55 and 59 were in apprenticeship training, whereas only 5% under 19 in VET were in apprenticeships, he said.
Belgium is a further example of reform success in its apprenticeship system, introducing a recognition system for companies to show they offered apprenticeships, heightening the number of social and labour partners involved in the curricula, and developed a monitoring system.
“The apprenticeship recognition system was revolutionary in Flanders, as before there was no system, only relying on the good intentions of companies,” said Carl Lamote, Department of Education and Training in Flanders, Belgium.
Other priorities for the EAfA which were explored during the various sessions of the event focused on the need for digital and green apprenticeships, stakeholder engagement and reinforcement of the involvement of social partners, support for small and medium enterprises inclusion in apprenticeship arrangements, and mobility of enterprises. Horizontal issues such as gender, social inclusion and the internationalisation of vocational education and training also featured strongly.
The next event on apprenticeships will be the EAfA-ETF seminar for candidate countries and EAfA partner countries in Turin, Italy, on 11 and 12 October.