Work-based learning (WBL) plays a crucial role in developing workers’ skills for the evolving labour market. It is not solely a path for youth but also for adults seeking opportunities to up-skill or re-skill. The promotion and wider accessibility of apprenticeships and other work-based training opportunities can reduce youth unemployment, facilitate transitions into the workforce, enhance the productivity and competitiveness of enterprises, and enable workers to develop relevant skills in a rapidly changing world of work. The International Labour Conference recently adopted the Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023 (No. 208), offering detailed guidance to Member States on promoting and regulating apprenticeships.
Youth attendance in education and training or lack thereof
Quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all are central to ensuring a full and productive life to all individuals. They are also key to facilitate a just transition to a low carbon economy. Globally, however, only about half of young people (aged 15 to 24) are engaged in education and training.
There are considerable disparities across countries, with rates ranging from a mere 20 per cent to almost 80 per cent. Across regions, the attendance is highest in Europe and Central Asia, with youth participation above 66 per cent, and lowest in Africa at 45 per cent.
While young women are more likely than young men to be in education or training in all regions except Africa, this does not translate into better employment outcomes for them. Globally, only 48.6 per cent of adult women (aged 25 and over) are employed compared to 75.6 per cent of adult men.
The vocational education conundrum
Vocational education is a key player in honing specialized skills. But only 13.6 per cent of youth (aged 15-24) worldwide have completed technical and vocational education and training. The share is highest in Europe and Central Asia, at 19.0 per cent, and lowest in Africa, at 9.2 per cent. These figures mirror the share of the working-age population (aged 15 and above) who have completed vocational education and training. The shares are highest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Brunei Darussalam, Austria and Serbia, with more than 50 per cent of the working-age population having competed vocational education.
In the majority of countries (two-thirds out of 66 countries), the prevalence of vocational education is predominant among those with intermediate levels of education.
Participation in work-based learning
Based on data for 85 countries, about 25 out of 1000 youth (aged 15-24) participate in apprenticeship or internship programmes. There is huge variation across countries, however, as well as across age groups. Switzerland has the highest number of youth work-based learners (225 per 1000 youth), followed by Sierra Leone (140), Austria (136) ad France (116). Male youth are almost twice as likely as female youth to participate in work-based learning. The national definitions of apprenticeships and internships vary widely and therefore the reality of work-based learning would be very different between these programmes, from internships lasting just a few days to get some exposure to real workplaces to structured programmes of several years that are structured around defined competencies and complemented with off-the-job learning.
Work based learning is still underused. Adults benefit less from work-based learning than youth, with only 14 per 1,000 adults compared to 25 per 1,000 youth. These figures suggest there is scope for countries and employers to provide initial training and also reskilling and upskilling opportunities for both young and prime age workers, in order to meet the challenges of the twin green and digital transitions.
Lack of paid work-based learning opportunities
Based on data from 31 countries that make distinction between paid and unpaid work-based learners among youth (age 15-24), most trainees in developing countries are not paid. In Cambodia, Ghana, North Macedonia, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda and Zimbabwe less than 10 per cent of all work-based learners are paid. On the other hand, more than 95 percent of all work-based learners in Austria, Cameroon, Switzerland and United Kingdom are paid. One of the defining criteria of apprenticeships as per the Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023 (No. 208) is that they include “remuneration or other financial compensation”.
The new ILO the Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023 (No. 208) as well as the new indicators underscore the necessity for policy recalibration to ensure effective and inclusive work-based learning. Disparities in engagement across age groups and genders accentuate the need for these reforms. To bridge these gaps, policymakers should prioritize equitable access to work-based learning opportunities across all demographics, not only at the recruitment stage but throughout the training, assessment and transition to work. This requires not only an increase in the number of programs available but also revamping policies to ensure accessibility, affordability, and inclusivity, while considering the needs of vulnerable populations. Initiatives focusing on marginalized communities, rural areas, and persons with disabilities should take precedence, fostering an environment where everyone has a fair chance to engage and thrive in work-based learning.
Furthermore, addressing the issue of unpaid work-based learning is crucial. Governments must enact policies that ensure workplaces for learners are safe, , while they benefit from the same rights and social protection as other workers. They should also be remunerated in a fair manner. This ensures that the burden of skill development does not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of those least able to afford it.
Measuring work-based learning (WBL) is complex and multifaceted. WBL refers to all forms of learning that take place in a real work environment. It can take place within formal and non-formal education and training as well as informal learning that can be undertaken throughout a person’s lifetime with the aim of improving competences including knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to successfully obtain and keep jobs and progress within individual career pathways. Apprenticeships, internships, traineeships and on-the-job training are the most common types of WBL. They can be paid on unpaid.
Conceptual framework for statistics on work-based learning
To meet the needs for statistical data, the ILO launched new indicators on apprentices and other work-based trainees, paid and unpaid, by level of education and age group in 84 countries from all regions and income groups, for the period starting from 2001. In addition, new figures on the working-age population that have completed vocational education are disseminated.
Country-level data are based on national labour force and other household surveys in the ILO Harmonized Microdata Collection. Data are published in the Education and Mismatch Indicators (EMI) database and the Youth Labour Market Indicators (YouthSTATS) database for indicators on youth aged 15 to 29. For further information, refer to the EMI and YouthSTATS database description. Details regarding country practices are also available in the paper National practices in measuring work-based learning: a critical review.
The WBL data presented here cover only participation in work-based training that is part of formal education or non-formal education and training. Other forms of WBL such as participation in informal learning, and non-formal learning of employed (e.g., attending short courses, workshops or seminars) are not covered.