Hannes Richter

Education in Austria

Hannes Richter
Education in Austria

Top photo: ©William Plate Jr.

Apprenticeship Training in Austria – A Best-Practice-Case in Europe

These days, many countries around the world are facing two challenges: a lack of highly qualified workers and rising youth unemployment rates. The crises of the past few years have led to a significant increase in youth unemployment in Europe as well as in the U.S. In the European Union as a whole, the youth unemployment rate currently is more than double the unemployment rate of the general population.

In some countries this is partly due to, among other factors, inadequate qualifications among the younger generation. Even with adequate training, it proves to be more difficult for young people to find a job. However, in countries providing a high degree of professional training, employment prospects seem to be better than in those countries focusing predominantly on educational qualifications. With this outlook, it seems that practical vocational training has become a potential tool for creating better job prospects for young people.

Therefore, a growing number of EU countries have developed an interest in the Austrian approach to vocational education and training (VET) and notably its dual apprentice training system, which is characterized by practical training combined with general education. EU-statistics show that while the average youth unemployment rate within the EU is about 23.3 percent, the youth unemployment rate in Austria hovers around 8.6% (European Union, Eurostat 2013). Apprenticeship training in Austria is a well-founded and future-oriented vocational training pathway, offering an ideal combination of practical skills, theoretical background knowledge, and important key qualifications.

The wide acceptance of this training proves that young people are aware of the benefits of apprenticeship. Approximately 40 percent of every age group opts for dual training. Altogether, more than 35,000 companies train some 120,000 apprentices, who make a substantial contribution to safeguarding and expanding competitiveness as qualified skilled workers (Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy, Apprenticeship 2012).

Vocational Education and Training in Austria

Vocational education and training (VET) is very important in Austria. Initial vocational qualifications can be obtained by attending a dual VET program (apprenticeship and part-time vocational school) or in full-time schools. After completing their compulsory schooling period, about 40% of young people in Austria are trained in a legally recognized apprenticeship occupation, another 40% opt for a VET school or college. This means that some 80% of Austrian pupils follow a vocational education and training pathway. VET schools and colleges include:

• Part-time vocational schools (school-based training within the dual system) 
• Schools and colleges for engineering, arts and crafts
• Schools and colleges of business administration
• Schools and colleges of management and service industries
• Schools and colleges of tourism
• Schools and colleges of fashion and clothing and of artistic design
• Schools of social occupations • Colleges of agriculture and forestry
• Sport academies
• Nursery teacher training colleges and colleges of social pedagogy including special forms for people in employment and pilot projects 

While full-time VET schools and colleges can be organized in different forms with courses of different length (duration between one and five years), the dual vocational training lasts two to four years, in most cases, however, three years.

Apprenticeship: Dual Vocational Training

Graduates of an apprenticeship program acquire a full vocational qualification of a high standard. The training in an apprenticeship occupation is open to all young people who have completed nine years of compulsory schooling. No specific school qualification is required for access to an apprenticeship. There are significant differences between the dual training system and the training in full-time schools. In the dual training system, apprentices receive practical on-the-job training within companies (which constitutes the major part of the program), as well as special theoretical instruction at vocational schools.

Classes are usually held either on one or two days per week or within a block of classes over several weeks. During that time, the apprentice is in a training relationship with their respective training company and a student at a part-time vocational school. Upon completing the program, the apprentice takes the Apprenticeship Leave Exam in front of a professional group of experts; the focus of the exam lies on the competences required for the respective profession. Upon successful completion of the exam, the apprentice then has the opportunity to seek a Master Craftsman Examor to enter the tertiary education system. The choice of apprenticed trades is determined by the supply of available training slots on the one hand, and by the general economic framework on the other.

As of 2012, there are more than 200 recognized apprenticeship trades in many different fields, all of which are included in the list of apprenticeship trades [Lehrberufsliste] published by the Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection. According to the “Youth and Work Report 2012” by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection, 43.4% of all apprentices were trained in trades and crafts, 12.8% entered the field of industry and 15% chose retail apprenticeship training. In general, Austria’s youth still tends to be very traditional in choosing apprenticeships, with men favoring metal and electrical engineering and women leaning toward retail and clerical apprenticeships.

Despite concerted action, the social partners (system of co-operation between the major economic interest groups and the government) have so far failed to attract more young women to technical training opportunities.

Source: 2012 apprenticeship statistic of the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKO) Note: non-chamber = employers, who are not members of the WKO (e.g. lawyers, municipal departments, etc.) supra-company training = training providers authorized to train apprentices under the Vocational Training Act

Source: 2012 apprenticeship statistic of the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKO)
Note: non-chamber = employers, who are not members of the WKO (e.g. lawyers, municipal departments, etc.)
supra-company training = training providers authorized to train apprentices under the Vocational Training Act

Why Companies Train Apprentices

From the companies’ point of view, apprenticeship training constitutes a clear investment in the future, enabling them to meet their subsequent need for qualified skilled workers as best as possible. Already during their training, apprentices carry out valuable work for their company. Currently, approximately 35,000 companies are open to young people as training sites. By voluntarily providing apprenticeship training, companies show that they accept social responsibility, ensuring that youth employment and the future need for qualified skilled labor are secured at the same time.

Completion of the apprenticeship relationship does not necessarily lead to employment of the apprenticeship diploma holder by the training company. Fully trained and skilled workers can change to other companies and training companies can also recruit externally. This fluctuation is a feature of a free VET system. However in 2012, more than one third (35.4%) of all (former) apprentices were still working for the company that had trained them two years after completion of their apprenticeship. An above-average percentage of the people continued to work for their training company for two or more years and almost two thirds of young skilled workers were still (or again) in the sector they had been trained for. In general, all companies participating in the dual system and investing in apprenticeship training do not only act in their own interest but make a long-term contribution to the benefit of all economic sectors and professional branches.

Austria’s International Competitiveness

This high level of involvement in the training of apprentices on part of the companies is one of the key factors contributing to the competitiveness of Austria’s economy. This way it also ensures that the training portion in the apprenticeship system is directly responsive to a company’s skill needs. Another crucial factor for the success of the dual system is the coordination of apprenticeships and education plans by the business community together with the government.

Therefore, bodies like economic chambers, which serve as a link between government and enterprises, play an important role. In recent years, major measures to further develop apprenticeship training have taken place to increase the quality and attractiveness of the programs. This includes quality-oriented restructuring of subsidization for apprenticeship posts and free access to the “Berufsreifepruefung” (vocational matriculation examination) for apprentices as early as during the apprenticeship period. Since 2012, additional and complementary instruments have been available such as the new program “Coaching and Advice for Apprentices and Training Companies.”

In 2006, the modularized apprenticeship was introduced, allowing to design the apprenticeship training in a more flexible form. These kinds of apprenticeships begin with one common basic module to which several main modules are added. Having completed the basic and main modules, apprentices may go on to receive in-depth training in an optional, special module. Modular apprenticeships in specific trades offer a greater level of flexibility when it comes to training structure and presentation. Furthermore, they improve options to combine modules, facilitate the recognition of previously obtained qualifications, and ensure an even better response to market and industry needs. Since a modern vocational education and training system should also be able to react quickly and dynamically to the ever-changing conditions of the business world, the apprenticeship training programs experience continuous development.

Therefore, the Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy cooperates with other institutions involved in apprenticeship training including the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and committed companies on a permanent basis to modernize the dual training system. Much has already been achieved in this regard but there is always room for improvement.

Based on an article by Monika Elsik, Institute for Economic Promotion of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber