Traineeship provision around Europe

Newsletter articles

1 Feb 2013

Employment Studies Issue 17

Kari Hadjivassiliou, Principal Research Fellow

Kari HadjivassiliouYoung people in Europe have been particularly hard hit by the recession of the past five years; they are finding it difficult to gain entry into the labour market on any terms and in countries such as Greece and Spain, youth unemployment rates are now heading towards 60%. One way of giving young people the experience they need to progress in the labour market is to provide access to traineeships. Traineeships are seen as an effective mechanism which allows young people to familiarise themselves with the world of work, thus facilitating their transition from education, or a period of inactivity or unemployment, to employment.

In the context of these labour market difficulties and the interest in traineeships, IES carried out a study for the European Commission in 2012[1] that aimed to provide an overview of traineeship arrangements in all 27 Member States and to collect the most up-to-date information about different forms of traineeships at both European and national levels. This study provides the first comprehensive and comparative overview of traineeship arrangements, including legislative/ regulatory and quality assurance frameworks.

Benefits and disadvantages of traineeships

There are many benefits that traineeships can offer. For young people they allow them to apply theoretical knowledge in real work settings. They also enable young people to learn specific technical skills which better match employers’ needs, gain practical, workrelated experience, the lack of which is a key barrier to their labour market entry, become familiar with world of work, its norms and routines, start to develop their professional networks, and enter a particular profession. At the same time, traineeships offer employers the opportunity to screen and select the most talented candidates, expand their talent pool and benefit from the trainees’ new ideas, fresh thinking and creativity. Despite these benefits for both sides, however, there have been growing concerns about the quality of the traineeships on offer, most specifically relating to learning content, equity of access, transparency, and trainees’ terms and conditions.

Increased focus on traineeships

Our study found that the dramatic rise in youth unemployment and employment precariousness, combined with considerable skill mismatches, has prompted governments across the EU to increasingly focus on traineeships and practical work-based experience as effective mechanisms which can help young people, including unemployed graduates, in their school-towork transition. As a result, traineeships in a wide range of forms feature prominently in national programmes aimed at tackling youth, including graduate, unemployment. For example, they form part of active labour market policies (ALMPs) in a growing number of countries.

Further, in an effort to forge closer links between education and industry with a view to improving the labour market relevance of the curriculum and enhancing student and graduate employability, traineeships are increasingly a voluntary or compulsory part of both secondary and higher vocational and academic study curricula. Recognising the benefits of learning mobility, transnational traineeships (as part of either EU or other international programmes as well as national programmes) are also actively promoted across the EU. Finally, in view of the proliferation of traineeships undertaken by young people in the open market, a growing number of Member States have also either introduced programmes promoting such traineeships and/ or regulations or voluntary quality charters aimed at providing some protection to trainees.

Criticisms of traineeships for graduates

Due to lack of aggregate and comparable numerical data, it is difficult to measure the exact magnitude of traineeships. Nevertheless, there is a definite upward trend in almost all Member States of all forms of traineeships, including those in the open market. Indeed, in recent years there has been an expansion of traineeships which young people undertake after graduation, not least because employers increasingly place a premium on them having acquired work experience through such placements.

This type of traineeship has attracted most criticism since it tends to be unregulated and, in some cases, has been associated with reports of trainee exploitation, the replacement of regular staff by trainees who are used as cheap or even free labour, poor terms and conditions, including lack of social security coverage and low or nonexistent learning content. In some instances, traineeships fail to providee young people with a high-quality learning experience and therefore cannot function as a first step towards an open-ended employment contract. Indeed, in some countries there are growing concerns that some traineeships are replacing entry-level jobs and/or trapping young people in an endless series of such placements, depriving them of the possibility to secure decent work and become fully independent.

In the face of widespread criticism of this type of traineeship, a number of countries are actively seeking to either explicitly regulate or promote good practice through quality frameworks. In general, quality assurance standards may be compulsory or voluntary. Voluntary schemes are often considered to be less bureaucratic and not associated with ‘excessive’ regulation and, as such, more likely to encourage a greater supply of traineeships by employers. At the same time, however, it is worth noting the potential for poor quality traineeships where there are no compulsory standards.

The UK adopts a voluntary approach to the quality assurance of traineeships through the promotion of voluntary quality charters and frameworks. For example, in July 2011, a consortium of 60 professional associations launched, with the support of the UK Government, a voluntary Code of Best Practice for Quality Internships as a way of addressing concerns surrounding such schemes. By contrast, France stands out as a country which has, since 2006, adopted an explicit ‘regulated’ approach to traineeships through a raft of laws.

Effectiveness of traineeships

As far as the effectiveness of traineeships is concerned, there is an uneven and rather patchy body of evaluation literature across the EU, especially in the face of the great diversity of these schemes. Overall, traineeships which form an optional or compulsory part of academic and/or vocational study curricula (ie traineeships during education) were identified as having the most effective outcomes in terms of learning content, traineeship quality and experience, terms and conditions and labour market entry rates. In the same vein, well-structured traineeship programmes linked to ALMPs have, in some instances, yielded positive employment outcomes. Likewise, transnational traineeships can also substantially promote a young person’s employability. In general, the main success factors of these traineeships seem to be: i) their strong links with the labour market; ii) a well-structured approach; and iii) active engagement of stakeholders, including employers.

The future – EU policy formulation on traineeships

The European Commission has been focusing on the issue of traineeships for some time, bearing in mind the evidence on the labour market benefits of these schemes but also the criticisms of some traineeship arrangements. The IES-led study has contributed significantly to this evidence base on traineeships around the EU. In April 2012, the Commission launched a consultation on quality of traineeships. The objective of the consultation, which ran until July 2012, was to gather views about how the quality of traineeships can be enhanced through a framework in order to help young career starters make a smooth transition from education to work. The Commission received over 250 responses to this consultation. As part of their response to this consultation, the EU-level social partners asked to be formally consulted for their views on this issue, under Articles 154 and 155 of the Treaty establishing the European Union, which give them the opportunity to negotiate an agreement on the issue under consultation. The Commission accordingly launched a first consultation of the EU-level social partners in September 2012 and a second stage consultation in December 2012. In this second stage consultation, the Commission states that it will take into account the results of this consultation in its further work to improve the quality of traineeships. In particular, it may suspend its work if the social partners decide to negotiate between themselves on matters with a sufficiently wide scope. Otherwise, it will proceed to adopt an EU initiative on a quality framework for traineeships. Such a framework, whether it is negotiated by the social partners or formulated by the Commission, will provide some clear and practical guidelines about high-quality traineeships, including a clear definition of terms and conditions associated with traineeships, not least because evidence suggests that minimum terms and conditions are linked to high quality and effective traineeships.

[1]Study on a comprehensive overview on traineeship arrangements in Member States Final Synthesis Report, European Commission DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, May 2012, conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) (lead co-ordinator), the Istituto per la Ricerca Sociale (IRS) and the Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung (BIBB) in collaboration with an EU-wide network of regional and national experts. The full results can be found here

Read the research report

For more information on this work, please contact Kari Hadjivassiliou at IES.