The Swedish VET system offers 12 national vocational programmes that aim at preparing students for the labour market and can be pursued through two different modes of delivery: the school-based scheme (skolförlagd utbildning) that includes compulsory in-company training, or apprenticeship education (lärlingsutbildning).
The school-based and the apprenticeship schemes lead to the same vocational diploma (yrkesexamen) and largely share the same curriculum, as well as admission and diploma requirements and goals. Both schemes require students to spend time in a workplace but in different proportions, at least in principle. In the school-based VET scheme, most learning is delivered at school, with a minimum of 15 weeks spent in a workplace (around 14% of the total VET programme duration). In the apprenticeship scheme, at least 50% of the total time, calculated from the moment the student starts the apprenticeship training, should be spent in the workplace. Students have the possibility to switch from the school-based scheme to apprenticeship and back. Companies do not select apprentices and they receive grants, through the school, per student per term, and a subsidy if they have qualified workplace trainers.
Apprenticeship in Sweden was first introduced with a stable legal basis in 2011, as part of school reform that aimed at bringing VET closer to the labour market and making it more attractive. Apprenticeship was designed as complementary to the school-based scheme, such that it would contribute to fighting skills mismatch and strengthening the link between the labour market and the education system.
Participation levels have increased since its introduction, at least in relative terms and compared to decreasing number of students in VET; apprenticeship remains limited overall, especially due to low company participation.
Investigating ways to increase participation levels by making the scheme more responsive to the labour market was the starting point of the review on apprenticeships. While the scheme’s responsiveness to the labour market was the main focus, the review identified four broader sets of challenges, reflecting the opinions of the stakeholders interviewed. Challenges relate to the level of the scheme design and of its implementation.
(a) Design: scarce knowledge and low attractiveness of the apprenticeship
The distinction between apprenticeship and school-based VET, their respective benefits and value on the labour market, may not always be clearly drawn or perceived by employers. This may trigger competition between the two, constraining the scope for apprenticeships to increase participation levels among employers and young people.
(b) Design: apprenticeship responsiveness to the labour market.
The education sector does not seem to respond fully to industry skill needs. This may be due to a lack of bridging structures, both horizontally between the two sides and vertically between local and national levels. Local level flexibility does not seem sufficient to adapt curricula to the needs of the labour market; existing instruments to share training responsibilities between schools and workplaces are not fully exploited. The results indicate that schools have had a hard time setting up and implementing platforms for cooperation with employers, such as the local programme councils.
(c) Implementation: responsibilities and ownership.
Schools bear the biggest share of responsibility and they own the scheme, leading to an asymmetrical relationship between schools and employers. Schools are dependent on companies’ willingness to provide placements and to deliver 50% of the training at the quality levels expected for the final assessment and qualification. Cooperation between learning venues is often highly person-dependent, which can be a challenge for schools when setting up and running the apprenticeship scheme; this can lead to major differences in quality between different programmes within schools and between different schools.
(d) Implementation: employer engagement.
The overall level of company participation in apprenticeships in Sweden is low, considering the policy objective to expand the VET system. Employers (and students) cannot base decisions to use the scheme on evidence of costs and benefits, in comparison with school-based VET. Some companies still perceive apprenticeships as costly in terms of time and human resources, while others appreciate it as a low-cost way to hire a young workforce. Employer representatives point to the need for higher financial incentives, to ensure that companies can recoup their investment.
Whether to address these challenges or not, and to what extent, depends on the country’s vision of apprenticeship and the main function associated with it.
If the ultimate goal of the apprenticeship policy is to provide an alternative option to students to increase overall participation levels in upper secondary VET by delivering something which complements school-based VET, or at least provides an option within it which does not compete with it, then the existing apprenticeship scheme at the upper secondary level has already achieved this goal.
If, instead, the ultimate goal of apprenticeship policy is to make the apprenticeship scheme at the upper secondary level a valuable option for young people and employers to increase participation levels, this value needs to be clearly proved in absolute terms and also in relation to other options. If apprenticeship policy aims at making the apprenticeship scheme more responsive to the labour market needs, then further work needs to be done at all governance levels.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Flash thematic country review on apprenticeships: Sweden | Cedefop