voestalpine Stahl, Austria: Increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in the labour market – young people
voestalpine, a company in the steel sector, invests in high-quality apprenticeship training for internal and external demands. The apprenticeship training programme includes a special initiative aimed at increasing the number of women in male-dominated metalworking occupations, as well as providing apprenticeship training for long-term unemployed young people, particularly slow learners.
The division voestalpine Stahl is one of five divisions of the voestalpine corporate group. voestalpine is one of the largest companies in Austria, with a long and rich tradition in the steel industry. Under public ownership since 1945, it was privatised from 1995 onwards. voestalpine Stahl has locations in Austria and sales and distribution subsidiaries in countries all over the world. The company employs about 10,000 employees. As is traditional in steel production, more than 90% of the workers are male, consisting of: 41% un/semi-skilled workers, 27% skilled, 18% white collar (apprenticeship, technical or vocational school or work master), 7% high school graduates and 7% academics. Ninety-three percent of the work force work is fulltime, of which 90% are in permanent employment contracts and 9% are temporary agency workers; temporary contracts (0.5%) are negligible. The management structure is characterised by flat hierarchies and highly cooperative industrial relations. While under public ownership, the company was known for its high social standards and this tradition has been continued by the management after privatisation. The explicit aim of the company is to be one of the most attractive employers in Austria. Union density amounts to more than 90% of the employees (blue-collar workers: 99.8%, white collar workers: 88.5%) The company is a member of the Federal Economic Chamber (required by law) and a member of the Federation of Austrian Industry (voluntarily).
Description of the initiative
For many years, voestalpine has been well known for its extended and high-level apprenticeship training programme. A vital core of the company’s overall concept is to invest heavily in the education of a skilled workforce for their own needs and for the needs of other companies in the region. At present (August 2007), the company is educating 409 apprentices in 20 different occupations. voestalpine employs a teaching staff of 30 full-time trainers in the apprenticeship training programme. In addition, the company provides apprenticeship training for more than 30 other companies in the region (cooperating in a vocational training network – Ausbildungsverbund) covering 200 apprentices. In this respect, voestalpine offers their high-quality infrastructure (a modern apprenticeship training centre) to other (SME) companies, which would not be able to afford the high costs of such an educational framework.
The attractiveness and high quality of the apprenticeship programme is indicated by the high number of applicants: every year 130 to 140 apprentices are selected out of more than 1,000 applicants through a complex assessment process. Another proof of the high quality of the vocational education is the high rate of successful apprenticeships (95%) and the numbers of prizes in apprentice competitions won by the company’s apprentices.
Every apprentice is offered a job in the company after he or she has finished their apprenticeship training. Last year the CEO announced an increase in the apprenticeship training numbers, which includes more than 200 additional apprenticeships within the next four years. This illustrates the increasing demand of skilled labour in the company, due to economic growth and technological changes. This is especially true for the situation in Austria, which in recent years has experienced a reduction in the offering of apprenticeships for young people by many companies. This, of course, creates a problem for young people trying to enter the labour market.
Apart from the vocational competencies needed for the different metal working occupations, emphasis is placed on social skills, personality and methodological competencies. English as a second language is also included. In addition, special topics, such as drug addiction prevention, managing money, and health and safety issues are part of the programme. Special team-building seminars with external trainers in outdoor activities, and the possibility for English seminars in native-speaking countries demonstrate that new ways of vocational training are being pursued.
Two special aspects of the apprenticeship training programme are worth highlighting. In 2003, voestalpine started a programme, ‘Women in Male-dominated Occupations’, with the aim of integrating more women into the apprenticeship programme. Although initially focused on one occupation, production technician, now all occupations are opened to women. At present, 44 female apprentices have been prepared for skilled work in the steel industry. The experience has provided quite positive so that the company would prefer to recruit even more women To increase the number of female apprentices (the aim is 15 to 20%), Voest is promoting the apprenticeship training programme as an attractive educational possibility for women in schools.
Secondly, voestalpine started a programme for slow learner (lernschwache) adolescents who couldn’t find an apprenticeship place. Two years ago in Austria, a new occupation called ‘Metallpraktiker’ (practical metal worker) was created for adolescents who might not meet the standards of most occupations in highly-automated metal work, but still are competent to pursue an education as a skilled worker. It was an initiative to reduce youth unemployment. Initiated by the works council, the company, which normally selects the best of the candidates, agreed to offer ten slow learner adolescents per year an apprenticeship in the occupation ‘Metallpraktiker’ and a job afterwards. It should be stressed that this is a contribution by the company towards solving the problem of youth unemployment. The company stated that it does not use this programme, to avoid labelling the adolescents involved as ‘slow learners.’
voestalpine is not only prolonging its high-level apprenticeship training programme but plans to extend it to over 200 more apprentices in the next four years. Although this increase is directly connected to the growth of the company, it proves that the capacity to compete on international markets and the investment in a high-level vocational education for young people is not a burden but is in fact an advantage. This shows that voestalpine takes on the responsibility (and the costs) for offering young people occupational opportunities and careers.
The continuous improvement and adaptation of the apprenticeship training programme for current and future demands is innovative. It includes the creation of new occupations, as well as developing the vocational content, the structure of the apprenticeships and the teaching methods.
voestalpine also started two special projects. One is the integration of female apprentices into the male-dominated steel industry. This project is very successful, due to the apprenticeship performance of the women and because the needs of the company exceed the supply. To hold the skilled female workforce in the company after the apprenticeship, plans exist to create special female-dominated shift teams.
The second special project is the integration of ‘slow learner’ apprentices in practical metalworking. This project is clearly motivated by, and designed to contribute to, the problem of youth unemployment and is especially addressed to those groups of adolescents who have problems entering the labour market. In this respect, this is a clear sign of social responsibility of the company.
The key factors for success are: the emphasis by management on the apprenticeship training programme, the existence of sufficient experienced and competence teaching staff and the cooperation between management and works council.
Exemplary and contextual factors
The apprenticeship training of voestalpine has a long tradition and thus is nothing new. But what makes it exemplary is that in Austria the number of apprenticeship places has been decreasing recently. More and more companies refuse to invest in a skilled workforce because of the cost of this vocational education. This creates problems with respect to the future demand of skilled workers and rising youth unemployment. At voestalpine, these problems are being reversed.
Manfred Krenn, FORBA, Vienna