How to create apprenticeships that work

by Anthony Mann
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

The OECD estimates that over the next ten to twenty years, half of all jobs will either disappear or radically transform as machines continue to automate tasks that were once performed by humans.  Many other new jobs and tasks will be created. Such upheaval in the labour market creates a new challenge for education systems: what knowledge and skills do young people today need for an unpredictable future?

One way to respond to this challenge is through work-based learning: a well-established means of combining classroom learning and skills development in the workplace. Over the last three years, our team at the OECD has worked with countries to closely examine work-based learning and identify the characteristics that make it most effective. In a series of working papers, the team has reported on how to incentivise employers to participate in work-based learning, how to best develop skills in the workplace, and how to make workplace learning relevant to both disadvantaged youth and adults looking to retrain.

A new report, Seven Questions about Apprenticeships: Answers from International Experience, reveals insights into the purest form of work-based learning: apprenticeships. Drawing on evidence from across OECD countries, the report identifies and answers seven major questions around apprenticeship programmes, with a focus on key elements to success.

Apprenticeships today are increasingly seen as attractive routes to both white- and blue-collar employment across a wide range of skill levels. For employers, they offer an excellent opportunity to nurture the skills they require. But as the study finds, apprenticeships shape the transition from school to work in very different ways, and to various extents, across countries.

In countries where apprenticeships thrive, policy makers place a strong focus on understanding the costs and benefits for apprentices, and particularly for employers. In successful apprenticeships,  employers are able to recoup their costs towards the end of the programme. Rather than providing financial incentives to encourage employers to participate, governments would be better off focusing on policy elements that determine the cost-benefit balance of apprenticeship programmes.

Apprenticeship duration, apprentice pay and the capacity of employers to accelerate skills development all contribute to the costs and benefits that determine whether apprenticeships are attractive to both employers and potential apprentices. This is why social partnerships that involve employers, professional associations and trade unions in the design process can be so important in getting the cost-benefit balance right for both sides.

The extent to which productive skills are developed varies across occupational areas, and trainees  begin workplace learning from different starting points, which can influence the cost-benefit balance. That’s why well-designed apprenticeship programmes have built-in flexibility: they develop the skills demanded by different occupations while meeting the needs and abilities of different learners. And such flexibility will become even more important as global labour markets continue to transform. In other words, when it comes to apprenticeship programmes, one size should not fit all.

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