Pre-training competencies and the productivity of apprentices

Published date03 April 2017
Date03 April 2017
AuthorAnika Jansen,Harald Ulrich Pfeifer
Subject MatterHR & organizational behaviour,Global HRM
Pre-training competencies and the
productivity of apprentices
Anika Jansen and Harald Ulrich Pfeifer
Department of Sociology and Economics of Vocational Education and Training,
Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training, Bonn, Germany
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to investigate the relationship between pre-training competencies of
apprentices and their productivity at the workplace.
Design/methodology/approach For the analysis, the authors use firm-level data
on apprenticesoral and writing competencies and competencies in basic mathematics, information
technology and problem solving. The authors regress the apprenticesproductivity on these school
competencies and include a number of firm and apprentice-specific control variables. By reducing the authors
data set to firms that only have one apprentice the authors transform the firm-level data into quasi individual-
level data.
Findings The main findings are that not all competencies are equally related to productivity.
Problem-solving competencies followed by oral and writing competencies show the strongest relation to the
productive potential of apprentices. IT competencies are also positively but weakly relatedto the apprentices
productivity. In contrast, higher levels of basic mathematical competencies leave productivity levels largely
unchanged. Differentiating between occupational groups, the authors find that the positive relation between
the competencies and productivity predominantly exists in commercial occupations rather than in industrial
and technical occupations.
Practical implications The results show that better school competencies are associated with a higher
productivity of apprent ices, which in turn lowers t he firmstraining costs. From a policy perspective,
this finding is important beca use it implies that, by improving the a pprenticescompetenc ies, the firms
willingness to participate in the apprenticeship system can be increased. Moreover, the results are
important for training firms because they show o n which competencies firm s should focus in their
recruitment decision.
Originality/value The paper studies for the first time the relation between pre-training competencies and
productivity of apprentices at the working place. A practical implication from the authorsanalysis is that it
could be useful to implement tools measuring the problem solving and oral and writing competencies of
apprenticeship applicants in the process of recruitment.
Keywords Competencies, Productivity, Apprenticeship
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
Apprenticeship training is a unique form of education because it combines company-based
training with vocational schooling. While firms often bear considerable costs for trainers,
apprenticeswages and training infrastructure, the productive contributions of apprentices
compensate for some or all of the costs borne by the firm[1]. Schönfeld et al. (2010) find that,
on average, the productive contribution of apprentices offsets more than three-quarter of the
gross training costs. About one-third of all German apprentices can fully compensate for
firm expenditure on training by being involved in productive work. This means that
training firms can significantly reduce their training costs when recruiting highly
productive apprentices. Therefore, it is important for the firm to know which individual
characteristics determine the productivity of an apprentice.
This paper analyses the relationship between the apprenticesproductivity at the
workplace and the pre-training competencies that apprentices have obtained during their
prior schooling. We use firm-level data that, apart from variables on productivity and wages Evidence-based HRM: a Global
Forum for Empirical Scholarship
Vol. 5 No. 1, 2017
pp. 59-79
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/EBHRM-05-2015-0018
Received 28 May 2015
Revised 28 September 2015
26 November 2015
17 December 2015
Accepted 22 December 2015
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The authors thank Andries de Grip and Ben Kriechel as well as two anonymous referees for comments
and valuable suggestions.
of workers and apprentices, also contain information about apprenticescompetency levels
prior to the start of the training programme. Reducing the sample to firms with only one
apprentice in the respective training occupation transforms our data into quasi individual
data since firm-level information about productivity and competencies of apprentices is
specific to the only apprentice in the firm.
In our empirical analysis, we first analyse the descriptive relation between apprentices
productivity and prior competencies. Because we find a strong raw correlation, we further
scrutinise possible reasons for this relationship and thereby differentiate between different
occupational groups. We expect that pre-training competencies do not equally predict
productivity in all occupations in the apprenticeship system because the strength of the
relationship depends on the extent to which pre-training competencies are applicable in the
respective training occupation. Commercial occupations, for example, focus more on
analytical and cognitive competencies, while industrial and technical occupations also
involve a significant number of manual skills. We thus expect pre-training competencies to
have a greater impact on the productivity of apprentices in commercial occupations than on
the productivity of apprentices learning industrial or technical occupations.
Our results show that not all pre-training competencies have the same influence on
workplace productivity of apprentices. Problem-solving competencies followed by oral and
writing competencies are most effective in raising productivity. IT competencies have a
positive but minor importance for the productivity of apprentices and mathematical
competencies do not relate to productivity levels at all. As expected, we further find that the
relation between competencies and productivity is strongest for commercial occupations
and statistically insignificant for industrial and technical occupations.
The paper contributes to the economic literature about apprenticeships by providing
new empirical evidence for the relation between school competencies and the productivity of
apprentices. The findings presented in this paper are important because the attractiveness
of training from a firms point of view substantially depends on the productive contribution
of apprentices. Understanding in which way different pre-training school competencies
relate to apprenticesproductivity is essential for firms that aim to minimise training costs.
The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. The next section reflects upon the
specific institution of German apprenticeship training. Section 3 then discusses literature
and theoretical aspects of the relation between competencies and productivity. Section 4
describes the data source and defines the variables used in the regression models. Sections 5
and 6 provide empirical descriptive and multivariate regression results, and Section 7 draws
some conclusions from the analysis.
2. The German apprenticeship system
Apprenticeships take between two and three-and-a-half years, whereby the duration of
training depends on the specific training occupation. The apprentice spends about three to
four days a working week in the firm and about one to two days of the week in a vocational
school that is financed by the state in which the firm is located. The firm is, therefore,
an important learning venue, in which the practical skills required for the examination are
taught. The apprenticeship is set up as a training (not a working) agreement between the
firm and the apprentice. Both parties sign a contract in which training duration, apprentice
pay and other training conditions are defined.
Training regulations in Germany have the status of a law, and firms commit themselves
to the provision of training outlined in the curriculum. However, firms still have
considerable freedom in how to train the required skills. For example, firms may use
part-time trainers instead of paying professional trainers to organise their training. They
may use separate training centres, in which apprentices practise their skills or organise
additional in-house classroom teaching to extend theoretical knowledge about the

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