School closures and short-time work in companies as part of the measures to combat the corona pandemic also affect vocational education and training (VET). Even though schools have been gradually reopening since the beginning of May 2020 and apprenticeship-leave examinations are taking place again, the coming summer and autumn have further challenges in store.

Schools closed, short-time work at companies

Since 16 March 2020, all schools, including vocational schools, have suspended classroom teaching and switched to distance learning ([1]).

In company-based training, the situation varies greatly from one branch of industry to another and sometimes within branches: in many sectors, apprenticeship training is massively affected by company closures and short-time working. Especially in tourism, in those commercial enterprises not providing essential services, in personal services such as hairdressing, but also in numerous production companies, apprentices have recently spent several weeks at home and were only able to delve into the theoretical foundations of their profession via distance learning. Other companies were able to maintain their training at least partially in training workshops or with home office solutions. At the same time, a temporary exemption from school was granted for apprenticeships in essential services and critical infrastructure to ensure that the apprentices are fully available to the companies during this critical phase.

An amendment to the Vocational Training Act (BAG) came into force on 1 May 2020 in order to make short-time work in affected companies possible in apprenticeship training as well ([2]). If the measures to combat the corona pandemic make short-time work necessary in a training company, the daily or weekly training period can be shortened or even reduced to zero hours for a maximum of three months. This possibility was limited in time until 31 August 2020.  

In addition, a free telephone hotline was set up for questions from apprentices and training companies on training during the corona pandemic as part of the ‘Coaching for apprentices and training companies’ project.

Development boost for distance learning

The choice and design of the appropriate form of distance learning at vocational schools falls within the remit of the respective school. In addition to written assignments and work assignments for self-study, digital and multimedia online learning services are used intensively.

The focus is on practice and consolidation of already learned content. At part-time vocational schools for apprentices, the development of new content is also compulsory, whereas at full-time VET schools and colleges this was approved after Easter and is the autonomous decision of the schools. However, it is clear that with the continuation of restrictions combined with increasing experience in the use of digital tools, the teaching of new content is becoming more important.

The increasing demand for digital support in distance learning has not only led to the optimisation and expansion of existing offers; new offers have also emerged. At the end of April 2020, for example, a media platform was set up in cooperation between the Ministry of Education and the public television broadcaster ORF, giving schools, universities of applied sciences and universities access to approximately 800 journalistic documentaries and magazine articles of public-law quality, which can be used to support digital teaching.

In the construction sector, a digital training portal had already been developed in 2019 for apprenticeship occupations. This offer of the Bauakademien (construction academies), inter-company training institutions in the construction industry, with 70 online courses, 373 specialist topics, 90 instructional videos and 2 900 knowledge checks, has now been opened up to other educational institutions such as colleges of engineering and universities of applied sciences.

These examples show that during the crisis existing resources are being made available to new target groups and can be shared across all levels of education, especially between apprenticeship training, school-based VET and the academic field.

Completion of VET ensured

Despite school closures and short-time working, it is ensured that the apprentices can complete their final year of training as planned. While part-time vocational schools for apprentices have been reopening for final-year classes since 4 May, and have been using distance learning to prepare for graduation in the summer, the apprenticeship-leave examinations – as well as master craftsperson and qualifying examinations – have also been conducted in the usual manner since 4 May. A directive issued by the Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs meant that all apprenticeship-leave examinations were suspended until 30 April. As a result, around 7 300 planned examinations were unable to take place.

In school-based VET, the Ministry of Education has stipulated that the matriculation and diploma examinations at VET colleges and the final examinations at VET schools will be conducted from the second half of May. To this end, classroom instruction in the final-year classes resumed to a limited extent on 4 May. Regarding the examinations themselves, only written tests will be taken. The annual grades for the final year are also included in the overall assessments. Oral examinations are cancelled unless a pupil requests an oral examination to compensate for a negative assessment.

All examinations are carried out in compliance with safety and hygiene regulations (distancing regulations, face masks, disinfection). These must also be adhered to in everyday school life and in training, but pupils do not have to wear face masks in lessons.

First conclusions …

In VET the crisis has highlighted some challenges and limitations of distance learning in technical and content-related areas, especially in structural and social areas. Problems such as a lack of terminal equipment or overloaded internet access for people learning at home were partly alleviated by providing terminal equipment from school stocks and with new purchases by public authorities.

There is great diversity in the digital learning and collaboration offers. The challenge is above all to create an overview of these offers, to check and guarantee the quality of the individual offers and to ensure access.

In many cases it cannot be taken for granted that young people have an undisturbed learning environment at home. The limited space for working from home often has to be shared with siblings or parents in a home office. For apprentices in short-time work, training is often reduced to consolidating theoretical content of their profession, while the practical work in direct contact with the customer, with machines and equipment is stopped for weeks.

… and upcoming challenges

One particular challenge is currently arising because of the compulsory internship for students at vocational schools, which traditionally takes place during the summer months. Many companies are reducing their internship positions due to the crisis. This means that the students not only lose an important opportunity to test and consolidate their theoretically acquired know-how in practice; these internships are also an opportunity to initiate future employment with potential employers. The Ministry of Education does not currently have any plans to abolish compulsory internships temporarily, however, internships that are not completed do not have any negative consequences for admission to the final examinations.

In apprenticeship training, a dramatic decline in the number of training places is feared for the autumn because, in many sectors, training activities could be cut back in view of the crisis. In addition to a lack of training opportunities for young people, this could also result in an intensification of the shortage of skilled labour in some areas in the medium term. In response to this, consideration is being given to how alternative supra-company training can be sensibly expanded in order to bridge the looming gap in apprenticeship training places.

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([1]) Exceptions are made for primary and lower secondary schools where, in principle, personal childcare facilities continue to be available for pupils whose parents have to work away from home. However, according to figures from the Ministry of Education, these facilities are only used to a very limited extent. For example, after Easter only 1.9% of under-14-year-olds, or around 13 000 pupils, were actually in school. Before Easter it was only 0.3% (press release of the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research BMBWF, 23 April 2020).

([2]) The BAG regulates the company-based part of apprenticeship training