Apprenticeships: 'Little progress' in Australia and US

Expanding apprenticeships in 'non-trade industries' has proved challenging across the globe, academics conclude

Kate Parker

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Expanding apprenticeship numbers within “non-trade industries” successfully is a struggle internationally, new research has concluded. 

Successful attempts to grow apprenticeships were found to involve efforts to synchronise government- and employer-led initiatives, and engaged employer associations, unions and others – but when employers were simply provided with funding and left to determine the types and structure of programmes, growth was less effective. 

The research, conducted by Dr Johann Fortwengel and Professor Howard Gospel of King’s Business School, London, with Phillip Toner of the University of Sydney, compared the development of the apprenticeship system in Australia, England and the US.

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When compared with support for industry-wide apprenticeship training schemes in Germany and Switzerland, initiatives in England, America and Australia all fell short. 

The authors argue that in both Australia and England, flexibility in training content, duration and assessment, and competition between publicly-funded training providers, resulted in widespread decline in quality, despite improved performance in some areas.  

Apprenticeships 'challenging to get right'

The report states: “This has led to declining confidence among employers, unions, and government in the capacity of the VET system to deliver the necessary quantity and quality of skills. This could constrain the scale and scope of renewal into the future.

“For example, the proposal to give standards recognition entities (SREs) considerable discretion in setting standards and certifying apprenticeship programmes in the US is likely to lead to an even starker multitude of programme features, making it difficult to create a shared understanding of what constitutes an apprenticeship.”

In the US, the report states, President Obama "revisited President Clinton’s relatively unsuccessful efforts to revive apprenticeships in the 1990s and also sought to target non-traditional sectors such as ICT and health. The policy of expanding apprenticeships has continued under President Trump, with the explicit intention of encouraging greater involvement of industry and to promote apprenticeship in new areas. However, to date, little progress has been made."

The authors suggest that future work needs to be done to determine whether or not the expansion and revival of apprenticeships actually serve to undermine the system overall.

Professor Gospel, an emeritus professor of management, said: “Apprenticeships were a theme in the UK election – the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour all talked about investment in apprenticeships.  But expanding the number of apprenticeships and ensuring they are valued by employers is challenging to get right. 

"Our research shows that while both England and Australia have delivered increases in apprentice numbers since the 1990s, that growth faltered when expansion into new industries led to doubts over quality and confusion over what apprenticeships should really deliver.” 

Dr Fortwengel, a senior lecturer in international management, added: “These experiences are important lessons for the US, where efforts to increase apprenticeships have so far been proportionally smaller. Expansion into new areas has been on the agenda since the Obama administration, but with little real progress to date.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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