Apprenticeships can become a driver for recovery and the green and digital transformations, provided some issues of identity and a number of ambiguities are cleared, Cedefop Executive Director Jürgen Siebel told a high-level conference of experts and policy-makers.

Addressing the virtual conference jointly hosted by the European alliance for apprenticeships (EAfA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), Mr Siebel noted the lack of a clear identity of apprenticeship, even at national level, citing recent Cedefop research and adding that identity matters when promoting apprenticeships to learners, their parents and companies, as well as when it comes to measuring and improving its quality and effectiveness on a common basis, according to shared understanding of purpose, function and objectives.

The Cedefop Executive Director pointed out several ambiguities surrounding apprenticeships, including:

  • Is an apprentice a regular employee, a regular student or both at the same time? 
  • Is the simple presence of a written agreement between learner and employer sufficient?

He went on to advocate clear solutions:

  • a ‘dual’ status for apprentices, guaranteeing rights and obligations related to education, employment and protection, particularly relevant during the times of crisis; and
  • contracts that are binding but distinguishable from ordinary employment contracts, to acknowledge rights related to the educational function of apprenticeship.

Cedefop analysis shows that it is the nature of the agreement that seems to make a difference in terms of quality and protection, and the Agency has always advocated a systematic approach to apprenticeship design and provision, as a conditio sine qua non for safeguarding a clear identity,’ Mr Siebel said, noting that ‘a systematic approach must be based on a strong partnership of all actors involved, and it must cover everything from strategy all the way down to implementation.’

An enabler for recovery

Turning to the crucial debate on recovery, he stressed that the digital and green transformations need to be fair, and that apprenticeship is valuable since it can be resilient to external shocks and efficient in the face of long-term structural trends.

Mr Siebel pointed out that ‘apprenticeship is not a repair shop. It is also an enabler to grasp the opportunities that lie in every recovery. By embracing apprenticeship, we can aim for a job-rich recovery. Progress has been made into this direction, and, as Cedefop research reveals, the European framework for quality and effective apprenticeships (EFQEA) provides extensive references.’

He concluded with the warning that there is still a long way to go before we may talk about effective and quality apprenticeship schemes across all EU Member States.

Addressing the event, European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit said that apprenticeships are a great and successful way of combining learning and work, adding that we must encourage companies, especially SMEs, to increase or at least maintain their apprenticeship offer during the coronavirus pandemic. ‘We haven’t waited for the pandemic to act,’ he went on. It has now been three years since the introduction of the EFQEA.

But recovery requires more action, noted Mr Schmit: ‘We are giving the EAfA a boost; companies who have taken apprentices will be on the winning side when the economy picks up again.’ He argued that the ‘major challenge’ of promoting quality apprenticeships for recovery is in the common interest of governments, regional authorities and, most of all, businesses. 

ILO Director-General Guy Rider called for a human-centred approach to the future of work, saying that it is now more important than ever. He pointed out that, according to an international survey, 85% of apprentices had their work and training interrupted during the pandemic, damaging their employment prospects. This is because not all countries had the ability to replace physical learning with digital.

Mr Rider stressed the importance of the ongoing inter-agency collaboration on the issue, which includes Cedefop.