A new Norwegian report recommends increased cooperation between vocational education programs and the workplace. Businesses believe schools are lagging behind. (Photo: Frank May, Scanpix)

Punctuality more important than grades for apprenticeships

Getting to work on time. An interested and cheerful manner. These matter more to employers than an apprentice’s school grades.

Little research exists on apprentices and the apprenticeship system as seen through the lens of employers, says Elisabet Sørfjorddal Hauge. She is the researcher behind a recent Norwegian study conducted among Aust-Agder county employers in the mechanical industries, building trades and health sector.

“Working life is changing and people in skilled trades have to be able to adapt. This study examines whether students coming out of school measure up to employers' expectations,” she says.

So what are employers looking for when they recruit a new apprentice to their business?

It’s not about grades

The study shows that employers are concerned about completely different things than school performance as measured in grades.

Private businesses tend to hire apprentices that they already know, says researcher Elisabet Sørfjorddal Hauge. (Photo: Agderforskning)

Do the young trainees show up to work on time? Are they in good physical condition? Can they run a saw or make a bed? Are they cheerful and interested in the work? Can they fit into the company culture? Are they motivated to learn about the field?

These qualities surfaced as critical when companies look to hire an apprentice.

The researchers conducted a survey among 50 instructors in public and private training establishments. The instructors get to know the apprentices best during their training period.

The study showed that the instructors and employers are largely satisfied with their apprentices. But challenges remain.

Prefer to recruit people they know

Norwegian vocational students are required to apply for apprenticeships in the public sector. Private enterprises, on the other hand, find their interns differently.

According to Hauge, private firms work much more through their acquaintances. “Many companies have a strong sense of responsibility toward supporting their employees' children or the neighbour boy who needs an apprenticeship placement,” she says.

Hiring acquaintances also gives the employer better control of how the young recruits fit into the workplace.

One of the reasons it’s attractive for businesses to hire apprentices is that it is a good way to recruit new employees. The employer can test the interns’ suitability during their apprenticeship and simultaneously build up their competency in the company.

Stricter requirements needed

Motivated apprentices usually adjust quickly to the companies' work processes and procedures. But some interns need to be trained in basic behavioural expectations, such as punctuality, reliability and showing interest.

The instructors believe that these personal qualities are the core competencies that apprentices need. Theoretical knowledge is necessary but not essential to become a skilled worker.

To develop these qualities, instructors believe that stricter behavioural expectations, as well as motor and social communication skills, should begin in primary school.

Improve link between vocational program and business

Many employers and instructors are frustrated because there is so little cooperation between the vocational schools and the firms offering apprenticeships.

Hauge says that businesses find the flow of information with sending schools to be lacking, and that employers “would like a much more seamless transition between school and work”.

The dropout rate from vocational programs is concerning, with 54 per cent of boys and 39 per cent of girls not completing their vocational education within five years, according to a study from Hedmark University College. Students typically drop out in the transition from school to apprenticeship.

“Employers would like to see students have even more study projects in the workplace before they choose an apprenticeship, so that fewer choose the wrong one. They also want teachers to come to the workplace,” says Hauge.

Easing transitions

Kristian Lindaas has been responsible for the apprenticeship system in Arendal municipality for several years. He is now a department head at a healthcare facility and will be accepting apprentices. He concurs that there should be more of a link between schools and apprenticeships.

“Many vocational programs have an old-fashioned attitude to working. They’re simply a little behind the times. Schools should be more proactive and get better acquainted with working life and realize that we’re using newer methods and technologies. It’s unfortunate that auto mechanics students are working on car engines from 2000, for example. Car engines have changed quite a lot in the last 15 years,” Lindaas says.

He also finds that students who become apprentices don’t know the rules of working life. This is where schools could do more to make the transition smoother. Students should be informed that there is little tolerance for a bad attitude in the workplace. Schools have to make clear that working is better than not working, he said.

Some apprentices aren’t aware that they need to let someone know when they’re absent and that it’s important to be on time. The Arendal municipality has arranged for business representatives to come into the schools to talk about what it means to work. “I hope this can provide a long-term effect. It would also be advantageous for students to have longer training periods in a workplace before their apprenticeship so they know what they’re in for,” says Lindaas.

Low status threatens some fields

Projections show that a great shortage of skilled workers could be looming in the near future, especially in the health fields.

This study shows that it is particularly difficult to recruit skilled workers into the mechanical industry. The profession’s low status and little encouragement by schools and parents on the opportunities available contribute to this.

Apprenticeship certificates are often seen as a stepping-stone to something else, and businesses are losing many skilled apprentices in the mechanical and building trades.

In the Norwegian health sector, the recruiting situation is exactly the opposite. Paradoxically, apprentices abound, but apprenticeships are sorely lacking, despite the critical need for labour in this field.

According to Hauge, instructors are finding it difficult to sell their discipline as an attractive option, due both to the low status of health care professions and the problem of so many part-time positions. They believe that closer cooperation between the school and workplace would help turn these problems around.

“The involuntary part-time work is clearly a major challenge for recruitment in this sector. We are good at senior policy in this country. But where is the junior policy?” asks Lindaas.


Read this article in Norwegian at forskning.no

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