More than 180 participants from 28 countries came up with cooperation ideas and discussed various ways of working together to help European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) increase their apprenticeship offer at Cedefop’s conference in Thessaloniki (9-10 November).

Ideas ranged from a European network for promoting apprenticeships to training in-company trainers, and from offering would-be apprentices a taster to organising campaigns to engage small businesses. They will form the basis for development of European projects in the coming weeks and months.

Various funding avenues, including an Erasmus+ call for proposals, which aims at supporting SMEs engaging in apprenticeships, were also presented at the conference.

Welcoming participants, Cedefop Director James Calleja said: ‘SMEs, who are drivers of economic growth and job creation, are natural partners with vocational education and training (VET), which provides the skills they need.’

Sense of accomplishment

He argued that apprenticeships give a sense of accomplishment to learners, adding: ‘Data from Cedefop’s European skills and jobs survey indicate that people whose studies involved work-based learning are more likely to find a good job.’

Cedefop promotes the European alliance for apprenticeships and supports apprenticeship programmes. According to Mr Calleja, the reason is simple: ‘The core values of VET lie in quality apprenticeship programmes.’

The Cedefop Director noted that ‘apprenticeships give young people the security of a pay packet and dignity of a recognised qualification – both prerequisites for employment.’ He said that the SME sector represents a huge untapped potential market for apprenticeships: ‘Unlocking it requires far greater focus and resources.’

The real impact of Cedefop’s conference, Mr Calleja continued, should be felt at local, regional and national levels where people who are not learning and working should be given the opportunity to learn and work at the same time. Apprenticeship programmes offer both.

‘Europe needs the engagement of SMEs. They employ two thirds of the European workforce, but less than one in four of them offer apprenticeships; their engagement is necessary, possible and a worthwhile investment in time and resources,’ he concluded.

Antonio Ranieri, Cedefop’s Head of Department for Learning and Employability which organised the conference, underlined that apprenticeship is making a comeback in many countries and more young people now see it as an opportunity.

Valuing apprentices

Leading British SME employer Jason Holt, CEO, Holts Group of companies, who has won awards and honours for his contribution to promoting apprenticeship, was the keynote speaker: ‘I am the SME voice in the room and I really value apprentices – they are the future of my business.’

Mr Holt set up the sole academy to serve the UK’s jewellery sector, which now employs 500 apprentices. Asked by the UK government, he led a review on apprenticeship in 2012 and has won honours and awards for his contribution. He told participants that in his country ‘85% of SMEs say they can’t grow because they can’t find talent.’ So, he added, we must focus on what small businesses want.

In her video message to the conference, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Thyssen stressed the crucial role SMEs play in Europe’s economy, adding that they can be ‘excellent providers of work-based learning, including via apprenticeships that will give our jobseekers the skills that are really needed in today’s and tomorrow’s labour market.’

Ms Thyssen argued that ‘SMEs can make major gains with the right organisation and incentives. For example, in Austria, two thirds of apprentices are in SMEs; and in Germany, nearly 30% are in micro-companies.’

Funding opportunities

The Commissioner said that the European Union provides funding through Erasmus+ and the European Social Fund to promote apprenticeship schemes in small and medium-sized enterprises: ‘With this investment we hope to stimulate a substantial increase in their supply.’

She expressed her hope that the conference will provide participants with ‘further ideas and inspiration on how to boost apprenticeships in Europe’s SMEs; and that SMEs will be empowered and helped to provide opportunities for young people with a springboard to good and rewarding work.’

Closing the event, Cedefop Deputy Director Mara Brugia praised the project ideas presented, and gave a commemorative gift for best contribution to France’s Meriem Dadou.

Speaking about Cedefop’s role in promoting apprenticeships, Ms Brugia noted: ‘We want to set up a systematic process to accompany countries and stakeholders in their apprenticeship trip. Apprenticeship partnerships should pave the way for sustainable long-term exchanges and cooperation. We help countries build capacity and support policy learning. In 2017, we plan to investigate the launch of apprenticeship schemes for adults. We expect all conference ideas to develop into European cooperation projects.’