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Apprenticeships - learning from the world

In the basement of a US Government building, a group of world leaders gathers. In this case the venue is the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the group are leading experts on apprenticeship systems across the globe – from the UK and Ireland to Australia, Germany, the USA, Ghana and China.

Dr Omar Arias, the World Bank’s Global Knowledge and Education Manager, sets the context for the discussion. The digital revolution, diversification of trade, reduction in manufacturing employment and rapid urbanisation mean that in every part of the world vocational education and training is at the top of the agenda. It has the unique power to give individuals the skills to succeed in our rapidly changing global economy. His messages are clear: employers must be in the driving seat; skills interventions must be tailored to the needs of individuals and we must be data-driven, focusing on the returns to particular qualifications and routes. 

What becomes clear from the series of presentations about different apprenticeship systems is reassuring – we are all facing similar challenges and have the opportunity to learn and borrow from each other. 

One challenge common to a number of countries is raising apprenticeship completion rates. In England these have hovered around 70% and fell last year. In some countries, such as Australia, they are as low as 50%, falling to just 20-25% in particular subject areas. A pilot programme developed by the largest college in the State of Victoria suggests that the crucial ingredient is the same as the one we saw in Jersey – a trusted mentor providing personal support, advocacy and links to other services. In the sample population, completion rates climbed to 85% with their intervention. 

Another consistent theme from different countries is the high value that employers place on brokering and support compared to financial incentives. Nowhere is that more obvious than in another Australian example – Group Training Organisations (GTOs). While their English cousins, Group Training Agencies, remain a marginal part of the apprenticeship system, in Australia GTOs cater for more than 20% of the market. Small businesses report that, even though they pay a premium of 5-10% of the apprentice’s wages, this is well worth it as they reduce bureaucracy, reduce risk and enable the creation of innovative programmes where apprentices cycle through related employers. This model has the potential to expand and drive apprenticeship growth in English SMEs, particularly in exciting sectors such as high tech start-ups working on Science Parks. 

By contrast, the recent history of French apprenticeships offers some pertinent warnings to the English system, with their 2012-2017 target missed by almost 20%. The level of their equivalent of the apprenticeship levy is higher than in England – 0.68% of gross payroll for all companies plus an additional tax on businesses over 250 employees where they do not have at least 5% of their workforce as apprentices. The means of distributing that funding is complex and bureaucratic, with 19 regional OCTA agencies (themselves a rationalisation of 200 organisations) sharing out funding to apprenticeship training schools in their areas. 

Many countries across the world are in the process of developing or expanding higher and degree apprenticeships – from Ireland’s first degree apprenticeship in insurance practice to the expansion of the ‘Dual University’ system in Germany. A common theme is the need to see this not as part of a drive towards competition with traditional higher education opportunities, but a chance to carve out our own unique pathways for higher vocational education. 

Ireland’s development also offers some interesting parallels for apprenticeship policy in England. Both countries are aiming for a significant expansion of volumes, with employers in the driving seat. In Ireland, unlike in England, the development consortium of employers selects a coordinating provider who works with them in partnership on the development and then delivery of the programme. This partnership work is funded by government through the equivalent of the apprenticeship levy. There is also a lot more flexibility in delivery – insurance apprentices based across Ireland sign in weekly to a virtual day of lectures and classes before submitting case studies and coursework online. 

One strong theme unites our recent study visit to Nashville with the key messages from the apprenticeships conference – as the international economy changes increasingly rapidly, it has never been more important to offer young people high quality, relevant vocational education. 

Olly Newton, Edge’s Director of Policy and Research, attended the International Network of Innovative Apprenticeships (INAP) biennial conference in Washington DC