With much of Europe still in the grip of an economic crisis, governments are increasingly looking to apprenticeships as a way of stemming the sharp rise in youth unemployment.
A major initiative being launched at next month's WorldSkills International conference in Leipzig, Germany, aims to increase the quality and supply of apprenticeships and to change attitudes among European Union member states.
The European Alliance for Apprenticeships will bring together governments, businesses and training experts in the hope that successful countries will share their tactics. But with some of these countries struggling to recruit enough apprentices, there are questions as to whether the scheme can succeed.
Germany has, it emerged last week, already turned to other European countries, including the UK, to fill tens of thousands of apprenticeship places. And Austria's once highly regarded system, which takes 15-year- olds out of school and places them in companies for three to four years, has experienced a 35 per cent fall in the number of apprentices since 1980. In March this year, record numbers failed to qualify in their chosen field.
"The percentage of young people who don't participate at all in vocational training has increased over the past 30 years," said Dr Marius Wilk, of Austria's Public Employment Service, AMS. "But in the past year there has been a shift of talent. The most talented now tend to go to secondary school, not apprenticeship training."
In Germany the number of apprentices has fallen to a seven-year low and last year more than 33,000 places were unfilled. In a multi-million-euro project, the country is now reaching out to young people in other EU nations with offers of bursaries.
Bob Bischof, of the German-British Chamber of Industry and Commerce, who helps to run the scheme in the UK, said: "This is altruistic in the sense that Germany feels a bit guilty about being tough on other EU nations economically. But (it) is also thinking long term. Immigration is high but there is a shortage of skilled labour, and with a falling birth rate it needs to attract more people to fill the gap."
Recent figures show that across Europe the youth unemployment rate is more than twice as high as the adult one, with 23.3 per cent of 15- to 24-year- olds out of work in the fourth quarter of 2012 compared with 9.3 per cent of over-24s.
But countries with established apprenticeship systems have lower youth unemployment. In Germany, Austria and Denmark, where despite the problems more than 30 per cent of vocational students still participate in apprenticeships or other forms of work-based vocational training, youth unemployment is far below 15 per cent.
In countries where less than 6 per cent of vocational students are enrolled in this type of training - including Greece, Spain and Italy - youth unemployment is generally above 25 per cent.
Last year the EU urged member states to substantially increase the supply of apprenticeships and to ensure that they offer young people genuine on- the-job training and work experience.
"The EU has to be seen to be doing something about this ridiculously high youth unemployment," Mr Bischof said. "The apprenticeship alliance can work but only if the political will exists."
YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT IN EUROPE
The youth unemployment rate is more than twice as high as the adult one, with 23.3 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds out of work in the fourth quarter of 2012 compared with 9.3 per cent of over-24s.
Only 29.7 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds who were unemployed in 2010 found a job in 2011.
In 2012, 42 per cent of young employees were working on a temporary contract, four times as many as adults, and 32 per cent were part-time, nearly twice the adults' rate.
Source: European Commission.
Photo credit: Alamy