Apprentices could be a magic pill for health
Apprenticeships are increasingly seen in many European countries as the solution to tackling youth unemployment. But although work-based learning is slowly gaining in popularity, only a quarter of businesses across the European Union with 10 or more employees actually employ apprentices.
That is why the EU's vocational education chief has urged employers from non-traditional sectors such as health and information communications technology to get involved.
James Calleja, head of the EU's vocational training centre Cedefop, said: "If we want to give more young people a chance to get an apprenticeship, we have to encourage more enterprises in more countries to train, and also in other sectors and occupations than those in craft-type professions.such as in ICT, sales, health care or renewable energies."
Speaking at a European Commission conference in Brussels last week, Mr Calleja said the revival of apprenticeships could work only if learners and businesses bought in to the idea.
"This is a challenge, in particular in countries with high youth unemployment rates or a small share of vocational education and training," he said.
There are already several examples of unique apprenticeships. In the UK, the Civil Service fast-track apprenticeship scheme gives 18- to 21-year- olds the chance to work at the heart of government, and the country's skills minister, Matthew Hancock, has even taken on his own apprentice.
But Stewart Segal, chief executive of the UK-based Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said there was no reason why apprenticeships should not be available in every sector and occupation.
"I agree 100 per cent [with Mr Calleja]," he said. "I don't think there are any occupations that aren't suitable for apprenticeships. The framework is applicable across all sectors.
"I think there are real benefits to the apprenticeship approach of on-the- job learning. Traditionally we've seen the construction, manufacturing and engineering sectors at the forefront of apprenticeships, but it's slowly starting to spread."
Mr Segal, whose organisation represents more than 600 training and employment providers in the UK, said that public bodies, the media and health and social care sectors could derive particular benefit from taking on apprentices.
"There's no reason why, at the entry level, we can't have health care or even nursing apprenticeships," he said. "If you look at something like nursing, traditionally nurses were apprentices in all but name."
Last year marked the launch of the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, an initiative that aims to increase the quality and supply of apprenticeships on the continent and change attitudes among EU member states.
Countries with established apprenticeship systems have less youth unemployment. In Germany, Austria and Denmark, where more than 30 per cent of vocational students participate in apprenticeships or other forms of work-based vocational training, youth unemployment is far below 15 per cent.
But in countries where less than 6 per cent of vocational students are enrolled in this type of training, such as Estonia, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, youth unemployment levels are generally above 25 per cent.
Now Cedefop is planning to carry out in-depth reviews of national developments on apprenticeship programmes as part of its contribution to the initiative. Pilot reviews are set to take place this year in two countries, likely to be Malta and Lithuania, with experts from Cedefop taking a detailed look at the strengths and weaknesses of their apprenticeship policies.
But although the pressure to tackle youth unemployment has moved work- based learning high up on the policy agenda, Mr Calleja warned it would be risky to expect too much too soon.
Instead, there was a need to learn from the best and worst policies to understand what did and did not work, he said.