Implementing work-based learning: an interview with the ETF's Stefan Thomas

Education veteran Stefan Thomas has stood in front of vocational classrooms and advised governments on policymaking in numerous countries, from the Western Balkans to Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently a Senior Human Capital Development Expert on Work Based Learning at the ETF, Thomas reflects on his work and experience, and his eight years at the ETF. 

After working in his native Germany as a vocational teacher, being an assessor for the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and being involved in educational planning of infrastructure, Thomas began working for the German development agency GIZ in Ethiopia to reform the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) system.  

Following a stint at GIZ headquarters, which included advising the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Thomas then went to Albania to develop a project on educational reform before working as a consultant for UNESCO and the International Labour Organisation and joining the ETF in late 2015. 

Diverse experience 

Thomas’ deep knowledge of international education dovetails with the ETF’s mission to help transitioning and developing countries harness the potential of their human capital through the reform of education, training and labour market systems. His experience also compliments his colleagues’ diverse backgrounds and experience.  

Thomas finds working on different countries and TVET systems fascinating.

“We have 28 partner countries – although we are not currently working with all of them (Belarus for example) – and it is always interesting to see how different systems or pillars of VET systems can develop and how they need to be supported.”  

“My colleagues are from many different countries, which is really an asset, as they bring experience on national VET systems as well as working in ETF partner countries. And, like me, some colleagues have a rich experience and knowledge of non-ETF partner countries, like in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Latin America,” says Thomas whose work is primarily centred around TVET.  

“The two areas are both very much linked with each other, and it is personally hugely beneficial to work with colleagues who are specialised in labour market policies,” he adds.  

Clarifying work-based learning 

Work-based learning is a particular focus of the ETF, which the agency supports in the EU’s neighbourhood regions, or rather ETF partner countries to the east and south of the European Union; and in other regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa in response to specific requests by the European Commission.  

Implementing work-based learning into educational programmes and curricula is not always as straightforward as might be expected.

“There can be confusion, as people hear all these words like apprenticeships, internships, and traineeships, which need clarification, as they can be mistaken for practical training only, which can take place in school workshops,” Thomas says. 

In some countries, feasibility studies need to be carried out, as well-functioning work-based learning programmes require cooperation with companies, the training of trainers, and the consideration of safety at work policies and regulations.

“We provide advice such as whether to make work-based learning mandatory or more flexible, and which funding or incentives may be needed,” he says.   

The ETF is also involved in developing train-the-trainer programmes.

“It is very important to have trainers understand what work-based learning is about, to have the pedagogical foundations and capability to provide counselling to learners. Close collaboration with vocational teachers in schools is essential,” asserts Thomas. 


Apprenticeships are a core component of work-based learning and Thomas has been working significantly with the European Alliance for Apprenticeships (EAfA), which celebrated its tenth anniversary earlier this year. Recent members to the Alliance include eight ETF partner countries, namely Albania, Georgia, Israel, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Türkiye.  

The EAfA unites governments and key stakeholders with the aim of strengthening the quality, supply and overall image of apprenticeships across Europe, while also promoting the mobility of apprentices.   

“It brings countries together to exchange ideas and share what stage they are at in terms of reforms. Some partner countries are at the beginning, still looking and evaluating different options, while other countries have started reforms and are now fine-tuning by carrying out evaluations into what works well, and what doesn’t. We support countries with those evaluations,” says Thomas.  

And indeed, the ETF recently co-hosted an EAfA event together with the European Commission in Turin, Italy which also featured examples of outstanding success in the Piedmont region in apprenticeship schemes. 

The EAfA has close to 400 members, which have pledged over 1 million apprenticeship places. Since 2020, there has been a particular focus on developing digital and green apprenticeships, to which Thomas and his team are applying their expertise. 

Building trust 

In-country advice on educational reform needs to be intensive, says Thomas who is working in North Macedonia on shifting the VET system from being solely focused on schools towards more work-based learning, Thomas lead a working group for almost two years, and visited the country several times a year.  

“To give policy advice you need to be familiar with a country and build up trust. You can’t go every two years and say, do this! It really takes time to build good relations with the key players and develop your competences. You can't learn that from books. You need some experience. It’s also necessary to assess the consequences of reforms, as there are always risks,” he says.  

Centres of vocational excellence 

Since 2020, the ETF has supported centres of vocational excellence (CoVEs) throughout EU partner countries and further afield. This includes the ETF Network for Excellence (ENE), which connects over 400 CoVEs to enhance international collaboration in innovation and quality in education, training and response to labour market skills demands.  

Thomas has recently been involved in several studies for the European Commission into best practices at CoVEs. One study is on applied research, which is still rather rare among vocational centres, being mostly undertaken at university level.

“We are highlighting excellence at this level that can inspire other practices,” he says.  

Two other studies involve the transition to green and digital economies, and the role of CoVEs in aiding that transition by looking at five best practices for the digital transition, and four for the green transition to identify the kind of programmes offered, the pedagogical approach used, and overall management. 

Centres of vocational excellence in Sub-Saharan Africa 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, a study is looking at some 30 CoVEs.

“We are interested in where they are, where there can be further development, and what support might be needed in bringing together CoVEs with EU member states. Next year an event will bring together CoVEs from Sub-Saharan Africa and the EU to exchange experiences,” Thomas says. 

CoVEs are an important and motivating topic in Rwanda right now. The Rwandan VET Authority wants to establish around 30 CoVEs in the country. Some of these centres could be supported by the EU. To explore what future CoVEs in Rwanda might look like, Thomas recently visited the country and outlined various policy options.   

“We helped the Rwandan VET authorities and the EU delegation to develop some first ideas. It is important to clarify what is really meant by ‘vocational excellence’. This can be quite different from country to country where there are common features in terms of bringing together a wide range of stakeholders  including VET providers, employers, national and local authorities and other bodies and institutions to develop the skills ecosystem and contribute to social, economic and regional development” affirms Thomas. 

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