Vocational training gets a bad rap in the U.S., where a record 21.6 million students were enrolled in college at the start of the 2012-13 academic year. In Northern Europe, 40 percent to 70 percent of high school students opt for some form of workplace training. Austria’s apprenticeship system, which pays companies to take on 15-year-old trainees for three to four years and teach them skills such as carpentry, electrical wiring, and bread baking, has been the gateway through which 40 percent of Austria’s working-age population enters the labor force. It’s also one of the reasons youth unemployment in the Alpine nation of 8.4 million stands at only 7.6 percent, while the average across the European Union is almost 24 percent.
As Southern European nations grapple with that problem, programs such as Austria’s, which evolved from the system of trade guilds during the Middle Ages, are getting lots of attention from policymakers—and less from potential apprentices. In Austria, participation has been declining for more than three decades. Companies hosted 125,228 apprentices last year, according to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, a 35 percent decline from 1980, when there were 194,000.
Faced with a deficit of new apprentices, Austria’s labor ministry changed the rules in April to allow asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq who are younger than 25 to take part in the program. Germany, where the number of unfilled apprenticeships rose to a seven-year high of 33,275 in 2012, is considering importing youth from elsewhere in Europe to fill open slots.
One reason for the drop in Austria is demographics. The number of 15-year-olds has been falling since 2007 and won’t start growing again until 2024, according to government data. At the same time, more apprentice-age youths are applying to Gymnasiums, the selective high schools that are the traditional route to college and white-collar jobs. Many Austrian employers are electing not to take on apprentices because even entry-level jobs now require skills that young people just don’t have. “Twenty years ago, it was enough for a warehouse worker to be strong,” says Johannes Kopf, the managing director of Austria’s Public Employment Service, or AMS, which helps young people find apprenticeships. “Today they need to know how information technology functions and manage inventory.”
Some Austrian companies continue to rely on apprentices as a source of low-cost labor. Voestalpine, a maker of high-quality steel for airplanes and automobiles, employs more than 350 at a factory in Linz. The trainees take home about €550 ($711) a month, while the company receives government subsidies covering a portion of the tab. Entry-level metalworkers typically earn €2,320 per month, according to AMS. Voestalpine Chief Executive Officer Wolfgang Eder says the apprentices help offset Austria’s high production costs: “This advantage in productivity has been shrinking from year to year.”
Andreas Spindler credits Austria’s apprenticeship system with equipping him to survive the rigors of Vienna’s most demanding kitchens, including Café Central, the coffeehouse once favored by Sigmund Freud. Yet the 31-year-old sous-chef has seen firsthand how the social compact has begun to break down. “There used to be a code of honor between apprentices and employers,” says Spindler, who graduated from the program 10 years ago. “Apprentices used to receive knowledge from employers. Now they’re just a cheap workforce.”
Spindler may have a point. Almost 1 in 5 who completed apprenticeships flunked the March exam to qualify in their fields, the highest failure rate in 42 years, according to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. That’s a sign that their employers didn’t train them adequately or the young people refused to take instruction.
Sebastian Wandl, the 26-year-old head chef at Vienna’s Oben restaurant, says he derived more benefits from his apprenticeship because he elected to finish high school first. Wandl doesn’t have any trainees working in his kitchen because he doesn’t have the stomach for mentoring young teens. “It’s their age,” he says. “Puberty is complicated, and it makes it hard to teach them.”