When apprentices turn ambassadors

Initiative aims to promote work-based learning across EU

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Apprentices from across Europe will be recruited to promote work- based learning as a feasible alternative to university, under a continent- wide drive to change attitudes and tackle rampant youth unemployment.

The publication of school exam results over the summer has prompted considerable coverage of the number of students scrabbling to get into elite higher education institutions.

But the European Alliance for Apprenticeships - launched in July to improve the quality and supply of work-based learning across the European Union - is concerned that young people are not considering the alternatives.

It has now announced its Ambassadors for Apprenticeships initiative to create high-profile champions for work-based learning. It is also that hoped the scheme will overturn sexist attitudes that apprenticeships are aimed at young men and are available only in traditionally male industries.

With unprecedented levels of youth unemployment in EU member states - 7.5 million under-25s are currently not in education, employment or training - the need for action is urgent.

Research shows that countries with strong apprenticeship systems, such as Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria, tend to have lower levels of youth unemployment. But some EU states do not have apprenticeship programmes, and in the many that do they are often viewed by young people and their parents as less worthy than a university education.

Sigve Soldal Bjorstad, policy officer in the European Commission's education and culture directorate, said the ambassadors would become key figures in promoting apprenticeships in their own countries and in other European nations.

It is feared that the benefits of apprenticeships are largely promoted by governments and businesses, which can stand to gain financially. But Mr Bjorstad said former apprentices themselves had an important role to play in explaining how choosing work-based learning over university could help people to learn a trade and find work.

"When young people engage in quality apprenticeships they are likely to get better jobs," he said, adding that the aim was to recruit at least two people from each member state, and from a number of different trades.

Ian Bond, project officer for apprenticeships at UK adult education body Niace, said it would be "inspiring" for the ambassadors to come from non- traditional sectors and to challenge gender stereotypes.

"There's often a tendency to focus on the kinds of sectors where there is a long tradition of apprenticeships, such as engineering," he said. "That can perpetuate the idea that apprenticeships are available only in certain trades. I think it would be interesting to have at least one ambassador from a non-traditional sector, such as the care industry or accountancy, to challenge those ideas.

"It is also vital that young women are well-represented, because apprenticeships are all too often viewed as a male-only option."

Last year, all EU member states pledged to "substantially" increase the number of apprenticeships and traineeships, and to make sure that they represent "real opportunities" for young people. A recent EU employment review found that apprenticeships and traineeships are often a stepping stone to a permanent job.

Mr Bjorstad said: "A number of member states are currently looking at what they want to do to strengthen the supply and quality of their apprenticeships. They have made important political commitments and now they need to follow up on those.

"It is important these activities take place at a national level. It's not just about giving (young people) something to do for a few years, it's about giving them the right training that will make them attractive to employers."

Photo credit: Alamy

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