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Theme 4: Using Apprenticeships to Support Upskilling and Reskilling

The case for upskilling and reskilling of adults across the EU is compelling.  According to estimates developed by Cedefop [1], upskilling the EU-27 + the UK [2] adult population would lead to an average yearly gain of EUR 200 billion in the 10-year period between 2015 and 2025. It is also pointed out that although there is a lack of comprehensive data, these estimates should be regarded as underestimating the real economic and social costs of low skills in Europe. 

According to these estimates, in the EU-27 + the UK, there are 128 million adults (46.1% of the adult population of this area) with potential for upskilling and reskilling, based on those with either low education, low digital skills, low cognitive skills or are medium- to high-educated at risk of skill loss and obsolescence, because they work in elementary occupations [3].

The upskilling and reskilling challenges faced across the European Automotive sector are widely recognised. In particular, large scale transformation within the industry is taking place as a result of the impact of COVID together with longer term shifts towards zero-emission, digital mobility and the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 [4].

It is pointed out that these issues together with foreseen structural changes will impact on the automotive workforce, with significant job losses at the same time as significant recruitment difficulties across the entire automotive supply chain [5].

In order to meet these challenges a ‘Pact for Skills’ based on a skills partnership for the EU automotive ecosystem was announced in November 2020.  The aim of the Pact is to reach 5% of the workforce each year which would result in 700,000 employees being up- and re-skilled along the automotive ecosystem in the coming years. It is pointed out that based on a re-skilling investment of on average €10,000 per employee, this represents an overall commitment of around €7bn from the private and public authorities .

We would argue that Apprenticeships need to support upskilling of existing employees as well as provide training for new entrants and that Apprenticeships can play a significant role in fulfilling the up and re-skilling ambitions of the Automotive Pact for Skills. 

Recent work undertaken by Cedefop underlines the role apprenticeships could play in upskilling the existing workforce, highlighting adult participation in apprenticeships as one possible policy solution to the need to support adults willing to train, at the same time as broadening the skills base of the working population across Europe [6].

It is pointed out that all EU Member States have begun taking steps in this direction, but this will require approaches to facilitiate greater take up such as promoting more flexible learning options that take into account adult life situations and learning needs [7].

It is argued that adult apprenticeship participation needs to be supported firstly by removing age limits, secondly by building flexibility into apprenticeship provsion at the same time as promoting its distinct value (avoiding re-labelling of existing training that is not actually apprenticeship training) and thirdly by offering incentives to employers to use apprenticeships as a way to upskill thier workers and offer them career advancement opportunities [8].

A number of potential benefits for employers have been highlighted in relation to the use of apprenticeships to upskill and retrain the existing workforce [9] including to:

  • Fill key skill gaps in the business
  • Provide a boost to employee motivation by investing in their development
  • Improve workforce retention

It has been pointed out that an experienced employee may be keen to get a formal qualification in their specialist area, or may want to learn something new and progress into a different role [10].

One of the hurdles to overcome when recruiting existing staff onto an apprenticeship is dealing with misconceptions, including the assumption that apprenticeships are for someone younger or newer to the organisation, are restricted to those in ‘craft’ trades, or involves going back to school [11].

If apprenticeships are to be used more for training of existing employees, this implies that they need to be flexible enough to meet the diverse workforce training needs of different employers, but recent evidence indicates that a lack of flexibility in apprenticeship content is identified as a major barrier to increased participation by employers, with 32% of employers citing this as a significant issue according to recent market research [12].

This has led some to argue for a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ apprenticeship approach towards a more ‘agile’ modular approach to apprenticeship design and a move towards a personalised apprenticeship model with the flexibility to evolve over time. It is argued that this would provide the opportunity to pick modules relevant to the specific occupational knowledge needed, combined with the soft skills lacking in their particular organisation, together with specific modules built around specific employees skill requirements, with other digital skills added on top [13]

It is pointed out that this approach has been successfully applied in other areas of learning with one in five of the undergraduate degrees awarded at the Open University in the UK now open degrees, which allow students to largely customise their own requirements by picking different modules [14].

Recent research undertaken by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) also identifies a number of advantages of adopting a modular approach towards apprenticeships [15] including:

  • It allows increased specialisation through elective modules
  • Helps facilitate the update of qualifications, by enabling the modification of individual modules in response to new developments, without having to revise the whole qualification
  • It enable certification of part-qualifications, which serves as a mechanism by which those who have dropped out or switched to a different programme, can transfer their credits to another apprenticeship programme
  • It allows apprentices to be exempted from completing selected modules through Accredited Prior Learning, when they already possess the required knowledge and skills to fulfil certain components of the qualification.

It has also been pointed out that it would help facilitate transfer between employers, which may be convenient for SMEs and would protect apprentices should their employment be curtailed [16].

In Austria, apprenticeship programmes have been modularised in some fields including vehicle technology since 2006, to allow for the possibility of specialization, in addition to acquiring the main apprenticeship qualification [17].

However, the ILO Toolkit for Quality Apprenticeships also points out that the modularisatioon of apprenticehips might lead to the fragmentation of curricula and competencies,  undermining the more holistic conception of professions, and focus on simply acquiring a set of specific skills. 

In the context of the automotive sector which is subject to rapid skills change driven by technological change and faces major upskilling and reskilling challenges, adopting a modular approach to apprenticeships could enable a more flexible offer and allow greater uptake by existing employees. However, this would need to be achieved at the same time as ensuring the fundamental goal of apprenticeships as a way of equipping learners with a comprehensive set of skills, knowledge and behaviours to enable entry and progression in a particular occupation is not compromised.    


[1] Empowering adults through upskilling and reskilling pathways, Volume 1: adult population with potential for upskilling and reskilling; Cedefop reference series 112; 2020
[2] This was prior to the UK leaving the EU​​​
[3] Empowering adults through upskilling and reskilling pathways, Volume 1: adult population with potential for upskilling and reskilling; Cedefop reference series 112; 2020​​​​
[4, 5] The Pact for Skills, Skills Partnership for the Automotive Ecosystem, 10 November 2020 ​​​[9, 10]​​​
[12, 13, 14]​​​
[15, 17] ILO Toolkit for Quality Apprenticeships – Volume 2: Guide for Practitioners; Module 6. Innovations and strategies in apprenticeships; Edited by: Ashwani Aggarwal; Skills and Employability Branch, Employment Policy Department International Labour Organization 2020​​​​
[16] Source: EXPERIENCE ENHANCED; Improving engineering degree apprenticeships, Engineering Professors Council ,September 2018
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