Lost in transition: VET, apprenticeships and entrepreneurship

By Iván Diego, Entrepreneurship Education Project Coordinator for VALNALON. e-mail: ivan@valnalon.com twitter: @ivandiego

“Plain common sense seems to suggest apprenticeships could be used to further advance the acquisition of entrepreneurial skills but regardless of such potential, experts acknowledge most apprenticeship schemes currently in place do no explicitly train entrepreneurship skills.” (OECD, 2010).

The title is an attempt to capture what has been a recurring issue in our ongoing efforts and discussions to pin down the essential defining features of a truly entrepreneurial VET School under the frame of the EU-funded project “VET Schools as Entrepreneurial Hubs”.

Finding common ground for VET apprenticeships and entrepreneurship is not an easy task. On the one hand you have the hyperpragmatics boldly asking: Should apprenticeships deal with the development of entrepreneurship skills at the expense of the mastery of key technical skills? The overtly laissez-faire optimists come next with a rhetorical question:  Isn´t it happening anyway from the very first moment an apprentice sets foot in a company?   These two questions seem to sum up the views and concerns of a sizeable number of employers in Europe.  According to the “Survey on VET-business cooperation on entrepreneurship, skills and apprenticeships” (ICF-GHK, 2014) “more than two thirds of the large companies” admit that “the development of entrepreneurial skills has been largely absent from cooperation agreements between employers and VET schools” and, you better take a seat, they “do not find such cooperation immediately relevant”. This does not feel like solid ground for further discussion.  Yet, the usual messages depicted in the media are tinged with employers regretting the gaps and shortages on a myriad of key skills such as creativity, initiative or communication of the current and future workforce.  Two interrelated questions ensue. Do they really mean it or is this just the by-product of social desirability or political correctness? For, nobody in their right wits will dare to refuse embracing the mandate for more creativity/entrepreneurship/innovation.

If we give credit to CEDEFOP claims in the report  “Skill shortages and gaps in European Enterprises”(CEDEFOP, 2015) creativity and entrepreneurial capacity are key to greater competitiveness of European firms in a globalized economy and VET policies should be geared towards their development in schools. Although this supports our argument it is fair to point out we might as well discard it as a far-fetched last minute claim.  Just consider the only mention to “creativity and entrepreneurial capacity” is found at the very end of the 144-pages document. But, assuming they are so pivotal, I guess VET policies should also be looking at the coordinated development of these capacities in schools and in workplaces alike and the most readily at hand opportunity for this to happen is in the realm of apprenticeships.

Lost in transition

Latest depictions of the labour market are not really uplifting.  “Complex, fractured and demanding”  are recurrent adjectives that best describe the situation according to recruiters (Mann & Huddlestone, 2015). VET graduates find themselves stranded in the frayed ends of a shrinking labour market after a perilous journey. Akkerman et al conceptualize apprenticeships as a boundary crossing. This piece of research reports important differences in the epistemic culture (the way knowledge is conceived) and the identity position (or the role assumed by students) in VET Schools and workplaces.  Now, future research should clarify if the epistemic culture and identity position is also prone to change if “entrepreneurship/creativity” is placed at the heart of the work placement experience. To put it in a different way,  are they easily subsumed into the transversal “hoopla” about employability and its fuzzy definition or is it just an altogether different boundary that we are attempting to cross here when it comes to school to work transitions?

The answer to this question may substantially alter the way apprenticeships are designed and planned at present.  Potential courses of action may entail modeling apprenticeships after initiatives such as “Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs” or, in the case of larger companies, just following  the trailblazing efforts of BMW to put in place a scheme of apprentice-run companies within the company (ICF-GHK 2014, p. 26).  But an obvious while truly revolutionary shift in the discussion has to give the floor to students, teachers and workplace supervisors.  In this sense, participatory approaches such as the Change Laboratory (Morselli, 2014) may help in redesigning apprenticeships from a research-informed perspective.

As I hate ending on a high note, let me sober our expectations quoting a politically-loaded statement: “Between a half and two thirds of EU firms with difficulties finding skilled workers face the problem for reasons other than lack of skills: unattractive job offers (unwillingness or inability to offer a competitive market wage; bad job quality; precarious contracts); and lack of employer commitment to talent management.”  If you think this is a speech heard at an anti-Davos demonstration, you clearly underestimate my sources. Again, this is a snippet of text snatched from the report “Skill shortages and gaps in European Enterprises”(CEDEFOP, 2015). Ergo while the dyad “apprenticeships and entrepreneurship” is a bush that surely needs beating, it seems to be playing second fiddle to what really matters to fix this mess. Now, I beg your pardon but I need to keep relentlessly treading the mill of my lifelong search for employability in this certainly shrinking labour market. Although “Shrinking” is a word apparently banned from the Holy Playbook of Employability. My apologies in advance.

Further reading

Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2012). ‘Crossing boundaries between school and work during apprenticeships‘. Vocations and Learning5(2), 153-173.

CEDEFOP (2015) Skills shortages and gaps in European Enterprises. Last accessed: 19Jan2016.

Mann, A & Huddlestone, P (2015) What do recruiters think about today’s young people? Insights from four Focus Groups. Education and Employers Research

Morselli, D., Costa, M., & Margiotta, U. (2014). ‘Entrepreneurship education based on the Change Laboratory‘. The International Journal of Management Education12(3), 333-348.

ICF GHK (2014) Preparation of the European Business Forum on Vocational Training Survey of VET-business cooperation on skills, entrepreneurship and apprenticeships. Final survey report.