Towards a reform of the vocational training system

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Improving the match between the supply and demand for skills and raising levels of professionalism are two of the goals set by Italy's current reform of its vocational training system. November 1998 saw two developments of great relevance to this endeavour: the first results of a survey of company skills needs carried out by the Joint National Committee on Training; and a government proposal to introduce compulsory vocational training until the age of 18.

The Italian training system is divided between two main channels. The Ministry of Education runs the schools system while the regional administrations are responsible for the vocational training system. The vocational training system occupies a marginal position, being largely regarded as parallel but inferior to the schools system. A further distinctive feature is the separation between the vocational training system and the production system.

In recent years, changes have been made to the vocational training system. These have been described in various reports by the Institute for the Development of Workers Training (Istituto per lo Sviluppo della Formazione Professionale dei Lavoratori, ISFOL), a body set up to support the activities of the Ministry of Labour and the regional administrations in matters of vocational training. The report for 1998 (issued in November 1998) shows that spending on vocational training is continuing to increase. Nevertheless, in many cases the money is not used efficiently and there is widespread waste. Furthermore, vocational training is growing more diversified. Especially in the early 1980s, the system catered mainly to the needs of young people with insufficient academic ability to continue with their schooling. Vocational training was therefore viewed mainly as a safety net, and as providing a second-rate education and low-level skills. In recent years, by contrast, the regional system has increasingly geared itself to different audiences - adults and especially high-school leavers and graduates. In 1998, only 21.9% of courses provide basic training, compared with 58.9% in 1985.

The demand for skills

Reform of the vocational training system is one of the key issues currently being addressed by the government and the social partners (IT9811186N). Two recent novelties are the preliminary results yielded by a survey of the training needs of firms, and a government proposal to change the criteria for labour market entry.

A crucial aspect of Italy's training system is the mismatch between the demand for and supply of skills. In order to improve the situation, the Joint National Committee on Training (Organismo bilaterale sulla formazione) - set up in February 1996 following an agreement signed by the Confindustria employers' confederation and the Cgil, Cisl and Uil union confederations - is conducting a survey of the training needs of Italian firms at sectoral and territorial level. The aim is to set up a national system for monitoring companies' skills needs.

The first results were presented at the end of November 1998. The survey concentrated on certain industrial sectors (such as chemicals, electronics, machine tools, food, transport, pharmaceuticals, textiles and transport), within which seven areas of activity were examined - administration, commercial activities, logistics, research and development, design, quality of the work environment, maintenance, and production.

The survey's main finding is that there is increased demand for workers with versatile skills. In production, for example, the numbers of traditional shop-floor workers is declining with a corresponding increase in the control and management of processes. In administrative activities, office work increasingly involves services related to the marketing of products (eg customer assistance). In general, the most widely sought-after skills are: knowledge of foreign languages; the use of information technology; and social skills like relational capacity, decision-making ability, a sense of initiative, working group ability, leadership and problem-solving ability.

The government's proposals

In the days following publication of the survey results on training needs, the government announced that it intends to introduce a form of compulsory vocational training until the age of 18. Whereas today in Italy it is possible to work on a regular employment contract as early as 14 years of age, in the future, labour market entry will be conditional on possession of at least a basic vocational training. This proposal is part of a programme to reform the schools system which will raise the school-leaving age from the present 13 to 15 years. At the end of compulsory schooling, three basic options will be available to young people:

  • continuing their studies at upper secondary school;
  • entering the labour market on an apprenticeship contract; or
  • obtaining a qualification at a vocational training school.

The reaction of the social partners to the government's proposal has been largely positive. Both Confindustria and the union confederations agree that training system must be reorganised, but they point out that this reorganisation requires careful planning and a more efficient use of resources. Precisely these themes were due to be examined more thoroughly at a meeting between the government and the social partners scheduled for December 1998.

Commentary

In a period in which the "skilling" of the labour force is considered to be a strategic factor in obtaining competitive advantages, reform of vocational training systems is a priority for governments and social partners throughout the world. This is especially true of a country like Italy, whose training system still suffers from numerous shortcomings and an inability to meet the needs of industry, despite the changes made in recent years. The aim of the current reform is to improve integration with the production system and to articulate the vocational training and school systems more closely together.

To date, reform of Italy's overall educational system has proceeded rather slowly, and it has also been hampered by political controversy. It is to be hoped that the reform process will receive fresh impetus from the forthcoming negotiations between the government and the social partners. (Marco Trentini, Ires Lombardia)

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