Guest editorial

Publication Date03 April 2017
AuthorSamuel Muehlemann,Stefan C. Wolter
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour,Global HRM
Guest editorial
1. Personnel economics and vocational education and training
1.1 Introduction
Even though vocational education and training (VET), and apprenticeship trainingin particular,
has been on the policy agenda in a number of countries in recent years (e.g. European
Commission 2015a, b), empirical research about VET at the workplace is still limited in many
respects. While one reason for the paucity of empirical work was the lack of appropriate data,
another reason was that the provision of VET at the workplace was long viewed as a
second-best educational choice compared to academic education, and therefore attracted limited
interest of both researchers and policy makers. Consequently, policy makers were (and in a
number of countries still are) focused on increasing the share of university graduates while
neglecting other viable educational pathways. However, growing youth unemployment rates,
partly due to the financial crisis in 2008, fostered interest of policy makers in VET, partly due to
the observation of low youth unemployment rates in Germany a country with a traditionally
important dual apprenticeship system where more than half of a cohort of school-leavers enrolls
in apprenticeship training. Nonetheless, identifying the underlying factors that contribute to the
potential success of VET programs for firms and for society as a whole is a difficult task.
Simply comparing countries where VET is important with countries where VET is not
important, provides limited insights, as, e.g., youth unemployment rates are affected by a
number of different factors and not just the provision or non-provision of VET.
Crucial to a well-functioning VET system are firms that are willing to train apprentices
or offer internships for VET students. Without the contribution of firms, governments
would not be able to reform their education system in a way that would include the
vocational path as much as the academic path. Therefore, the role of firms in a VET system,
the rationale for firms to be active in providing workplace training, the challenges that firms
face when confronted with youth seeking training places but not possessing the adequate
skills required for a training position, the spill-over effects of competencies of workers with
different educational backgrounds and other questions are important ones, both for policy
makers and HR managers in firms. This special issue contributes by highlighting these
questions with recent empirical findings from Germany, Switzerland and Spain. While VET
has long been a neglected subject in economic research, there is a growing number of papers
that started to analyze why firms are willing to offer VET, and apprenticeships in particular,
at the workplace (for a review see Wolter and Ryan, 2011).
A first important strand of research relates to the questions about the effectiveness of
VET programs at the workplace in providing skills to unskilled or semi-skilled employees,
compared to hiring workers who already possess the relevant skills from the external labor
market. However, given that both options are feasible strategies to satisfy a firms demand
for skilled workers, the second question is about whether providing VET at the workplace is
more efficient compared to hiring externally (Stevens, 1994). Thus, a firm must compare the
costs and benefits from providing workplace training compared to the costs of hiring skilled
workers from the external labor market (Blatter et al., 2016). Even in countries with
traditionally important VET systems, such as Germany and Switzerland, only about
20 percent of all firms actually train apprentices. Thus, it is important to understand why
some firms are willing to offer VET at the workplace, while many refrain from doing so.
Classical human capital theory (Becker, 1962) predicted that firms would only invest in
firm-specific skills but not invest in general skills. As skills acquired in apprenticeship
training can be described as largely general human capital, we would not expect firms to
Evidence-based HRM: a Global
Forum for Empirical Scholarship
Vol. 5 No. 1, 2017
pp. 2-5
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/EBHRM-11-2016-0030

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