Why apprenticeships are a ‘win-win’ for companies and employees

By Amar Toor
Digital Communications Officer, Directorate for Education and Skills

Image credit: Alex Kotliarskyi/Unsplash
As the founder and executive director of the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN), Shea Gopaul spends a lot of her time thinking about the future of work. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and emerging technologies have dramatically altered the skill sets that employers seek today, and the career paths for young adults today look increasingly unclear. But Gopaul thinks apprenticeships can help – both for recent graduates who may be unsure of their next steps, as well as older adults looking to adapt their skill sets to a fast-changing market.

We sat down with Gopaul at the OECD Forum earlier this year to learn more about how apprenticeships can bridge the “skills gap”, and why effective apprenticeship programmes are a “win-win” for both companies and employees.


Apprenticeship is an attractive form of educating young people and preparing them for the labour market, and many countries have been trying to introduce apprenticeships with varying success. In your view, what are the main obstacles to introducing apprenticeships? Could you give us examples of success stories?

When you’re talking about the gold standard in apprenticeships, you’re talking about countries like Switzerland, Germany and Austria. But even in those countries, we have a big problem with the stigma associated with apprenticeships. The number one issue, in every country, is that parents see the career path as going through university, and only university. All other jobs or other vocational training are second class.

In fact, Sergio Ermotti, the head of UBS and a member of the GAN board, started out as an apprentice when he was 15 years old; he didn’t know what he wanted to do, so he did a banking apprenticeship. He didn’t think he would ever want to go into banking, but the apprenticeship not only helped him decide on his career path, it also gave him a certain maturity. And the Swiss system is such that he could easily go from his apprenticeship back into further studies. So that career path of starting as an apprentice, getting to understand what you like, maturing and then going back to university is truly a win-win.

Unfortunately apprenticeships, internships and learnerships have often been used as a source of cheap labour. I hate to say that, but it’s true. And because of that, a lot of times, the legislation and regulations are so stringent and complicated that employers just don’t set up apprenticeships. Through our 12 GAN national networks, we’re working to bring the public and private sectors around the table to discuss ways to set up an environment that actually encourages employers to set up apprenticeships. Sometimes that involves tax incentives.

We also work to show employers the return on investment, because setting up an apprenticeship programme can be expensive. But in the US, for every dollar that employers spend [on apprenticeships], they receive USD 1.47 in return. In Switzerland, employers pay for the first year, but by the second and third years they get their return on investment. So we have to be better at communicating to employers that there’s actually a business case for apprenticeships.

Shea Gopaul, Executive Director of the Global Apprenticeship Network
New technologies are changing the employment structure and tasks performed on the job. How have you seen vocational educational and training (VET) programmes adjust to this? And how do you see the role of apprenticeships changing as AI, machine learning and new technologies change the skill set that employers might need?  

We actually have a lot of IT companies in the GAN, and they’re really struggling to get young people who have the skills that they need. What they’re saying is they want shorter apprenticeship programmes, and that they want them to focus on soft skills – that means collaboration, communication, teamwork, and creativity, which might not be what you would think an IT company would want.

[IT companies] feel that they can teach the technical skills to young people, but teaching that thirst for learning and how to be flexible is really important, and apprenticeships can help achieve that. Vocational training used to focus on extremely technical work, but IT companies today say that the technology they teach today may no longer be relevant in six months’ time. So it’s important that young people learn to continue learning, and adapt new technologies to even more advanced technologies.

Some countries have set up financial incentives, such as levies or subsidies, to promote training. What is your experience with theses mechanisms? Are there better ways of involving employers?

I’m not sure the financial aspect is key for very large companies, but it certainly is for SMEs [small and medium enterprises]. That’s where the job growth will be, and I think they do need some incentives, because setting up an apprenticeship programme can be complicated. In the US, for example, there are 50 states, and they all do things 50 different ways. So if you’re an employer and you’re in all 50 states, you actually need different registration processes [for each state], or you may have to set up your own public-private partnerships with universities. It’s really costly and time consuming, so they need intermediaries to help facilitate it. Large multinationals have big HR departments to do some of this work, but even some of these companies are saying it’s becoming too expensive and the numbers are too small to justify the costs. So I think simplifying the system and letting employers drive some of these innovative apprenticeships is an interesting model.

I think tax incentives can be important, but I think getting the word out there is the most important thing, and perhaps the biggest hurdle. That’s why we work to share the best practices of companies that have implemented apprenticeships – to show that there is a business case for doing this, and that it makes sense. They have better retention [rates], because young people come in with a mentor and they feel that they belong. So they’re more engaged and more productive.

There are plenty of systems out there that work, but I don’t think you can cut and paste any country’s system into a new environment; you have to look at the culture and you have to look at different industries. But I think it’s not an impossible task. You just have to find the right partners and people to make it easy to implement.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 


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