What can Australia learn from overseas apprenticeship programs?

By Ron Maxwell - CEO

In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, Australia’s apprentices and trainees will play a significant role in our recovery across many industries, including construction, healthcare, and hospitality. In light of this, reversing declining commencements is a strategic imperative.

Apprenticeships are widely considered a key youth employment mechanism across the globe, with the OECD recognising their role in providing employers with the skilled workforce they need to remain competitive while contributing to regional development objectives. In my career, I have been fortunate enough to gain insights into global apprenticeship programs, even seeing some of them in action firsthand. Today, I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from our counterparts worldwide.

#1 The true value of apprenticeships should be widely recognised

In Australia, apprenticeships are often still seen as a poor cousin to university by students, parents and career guidance programs, but the reality is that they have so much to offer. Many of our international counterparts have much stronger promotion of apprenticeships to not just school students but society as a whole. For example, in Switzerland, they are widely viewed as a vehicle to upskill students for the jobs of the future.

Korea is another country that is making good headway with this. Once seen as an option for those who don’t get into university, apprenticeships are growing in popularity amongst Korean youth, particularly in professional fields like IT.

The role of apprenticeships in jobs of the future here and around the world is evident, so we need to be thinking about this here in Australia. Helping students and career guidance counsellors recognise and promote their importance is critical, as is integrating them into our broader education system.

#2 Apprenticeships can (and should) work hand-in-hand with our school and tertiary education systems

While we do have school-based apprenticeships here in Australia, whereby students study towards their HSC and an apprenticeship simultaneously, in my opinion, they have so much more potential. Australia has moved away from a technical high school model, where students make deliberate subject choices that align with their vocational aspirations, but in other countries, this is yielding some fantastic results.

Switzerland’s CTE program is an excellent example of how this can work in practice. The secondary school system is aligned to what industry needs, supporting students to develop practical skills through technical and career education.

#3 Employer and industry engagement is key

In Australia, our governments really drive apprenticeships, incentivising businesses to take on apprentices. However, in many other countries, it is the other way around. Employers are heavily engaged in the apprenticeship structure, seeing it as a way to support their businesses, the industry, and the wider economy. And there are some interesting initiatives that we can look to.

Germany’s “dual training” system embodies this engagement. Big companies across industries like automotive and manufacturing partner with dedicated vocational schools to upskill trainees quickly. And with many German innovations in these spaces considered world-class, it’s evident that this system is effective.

With the UK losing some mobility that it had as part of the European Union, upskilling local workers is imperative. So, I was interested to read recently that the UK government has introduced an initiative that enables large businesses to fund smaller businesses to take on apprentices. Amazon UK, Lloyds Banking and Co-op have already signed on, so it’s clear that these organisations see value for the industry, and it would be fantastic to see something similar here. 

#4 We should always strive to do better

I don’t want to take away from the achievements of our local program. Australia’s apprenticeship system certainly has seen some great results, but a focus on continuous improvement is always important.

When it comes to making Australia’s program the best it can be, it’s a case of thinking globally, acting locally. There is so much we can learn from what is happening worldwide to put Australia on the map and strengthen the future for us all.