02 SES 13 A, Innovative Teaching and Learning Practices in VET
Firms play an important educational role in skill development because they qualify their personnel for present and future labour market needs and, therefore, contribute to economic performance and competitiveness as well as social integration. However, firms are not homogeneous entities; they differ in terms of size. Small firms are defined as organisations that employ fewer than 50 employees, such as car workshops, hairdressing salons, bakeries, and daycare centres. They employ a large number of employees: in most countries, small firms employ around half of the private sector workforce (Billett 2001; Bishop 2015). Despite their importance, small firms are often overlooked due to the normality of the large-firm paradigm (Bishop 2017; Nolan and Garavan 2015). Compared to large firms, small companies differ in terms of resources, organisational structure complexity, management style, learning and career opportunities, and recruitment strategies (Baumeler and Lamamra 2019; Kelliher and Reinl 2009).
Against this backdrop, we aim to provide a deeper understanding of why small companies engage in vocational training and contribute to the social and labour market integration of young people. Therefore, this article addresses the following research question: Why do small firms offer apprenticeship training?
The current state of research provides various indications regarding individual, organisational, and societal perspectives of firms and their vocational training activities. As these three levels are assigned to three different research traditions (research on institutional embeddedness of the firm, cost-benefit studies, and research on small firms), they are not closely related to one another. While research that focuses on the specificity of small firms identifies the important role of the owner and their personality, values, attitudes, and experiences (Nolan and Garavan 2015; Kelliher and Reinl 2009), economic research focuses on explaining factors related to profitable cost-benefit relations in apprenticeship training (Muehlemann and Wolter 2014). Research on the institutional embeddedness of firms (Mikl-Horke 2011) and collective skill formation systems (Busemeyer and Trampusch 2012) highlights the important influence of institutional framework conditions. The present study brings together these three usually unrelated research perspectives and focuses on Switzerland as a collective skill formation system, where firms, intermediary organisations, and the state work together to provide vocational education and training, often as dual apprenticeships.
The Swiss system adheres to a ‘training beyond need’ model (Bishop 2015), in which employers train more workers and develop broader skills than are required by immediate market pressures (Streeck 1991). Vocational education and training is the most popular form of education at the upper secondary level: two-thirds of all young people choose to train in one of 230 occupations after completing compulsory schooling. Among them, 90% attend dual programmes that combine part-time apprenticeships at a host company (60–80% of the time), part-time studies at a vocational school (20–40% of the time), and additional learning through branch courses.
In 2017, small firms employed around half (47.5%) of the workforce in Switzerland. These small firms are especially important in the context of vocational training. In 2008, 70% of all apprenticeships took place at small firms (Müller and Schweri 2012). The predominant provision of dual programmes requires a high level of commitment from companies, which offer apprenticeship positions voluntarily and pay the wages of the apprentices and other training costs, such as supervision by an in-house workplace trainer, infrastructure, and equipment.
Few studies have looked at why small companies offer apprenticeships in collective skill formation systems. We took a qualitative approach to address this topic. We conducted qualitative case studies to analyse the phenomenon and develop an understanding of it from the participants’ perspective (Harrison et al. 2017). The qualitative research approach works especially well if the purpose of the study is to learn about respondents’ beliefs, perspectives, and meaning-making (Roulston and Choi 2018), as was the case in our study. Qualitative inquiry typically focuses on relatively small and purposefully selected samples (Patton 2015). Because small firms are difficult to access as a population, we used snowball sampling (Parker, Scott, and Geddes 2019), asking occupational associations to suggest firms for our research purpose. With this sampling procedure, we opted to capture the heterogeneity of our research object in terms of a maximum variation sample regarding branches and size. We analysed 18 cases from different sectors (agriculture, industry, services), involving one to 40 collaborators. We conducted semi-structured face-to-face interviews with the owners of small firms, who are responsible for the recruitment and training of apprentices. We used an openly constructed interview guideline that encouraged the interviewees to share their points of view. The guideline also included questions about their reasons for offering apprenticeship positions and their motivations to train apprentices daily. Further information about the owners’ motives was found in their curriculum vitae, their experience during their own apprenticeship, and the presentation of their company philosophy. Audio recordings of the interviews were fully transcribed, and thematic coding was completed using NVivo software. As we used a qualitative research design, we coded through an iterative process and remained open to identify categories that emerged from the data (Roulston 2014). We first defined categories for firm motivations (individual, organisational and societal level) based on the presented state of research and assigned text excerpts to these categories. Next, we formed bottom-up subcategories that concretised the superordinate categories. We then grouped the cases by category to detail the firms’ motivational configurations (one-, two-, or three-dimensional).
As our study showed, the identified motivations of the owners of small firms are manifold and can be assigned to three levels: individual, organizational, and societal. The voluntary participation of small companies in the Swiss VET system is shaped by the personality, experiences, attitudes, and values of the owner-managers. We identified the following subcategories: enjoyment of the pleasure of training, guided by their own experiences during the apprenticeships, enjoyment of contact with young people, and guided by their parental role. In contrast, the owners also justified their participation in terms of direct benefit for their companies (subcategories: cost-effective support of the firm, train skilled workers to suit their own needs, invest in apprenticeship training as part of succession planning, access recent trends, and benefit from further informal education). Furthermore, we identified subcategories that attributed the training decisions to a larger institutional framework: the respondents saw themselves as responsible for their occupation, they felt obliged to participate in training and had a certain social responsibility to their company, and they wanted to support the good vocational education and training system. Moreover, the heterogeneous motivational configurations of the small firms studied show that they are not homogeneous entities because they refer to different motivations and often show multidimensional combinations. Therefore, explanations of the small firms’ voluntary participation in offering apprenticeship training that refer to only one of the three levels (for example, the rational considerations of the cost-benefit ratio of vocational training) can only partially illuminate the phenomenon under investigation. These results have interesting implications for policies aimed at increasing small firms’ participation in vocational education and training since not only economic but also subjective and institutional factors seem to motivate small firms to participate.
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