Vocational Competences of Apprentices in New Boundary Institutions
In countries with dual-VET systems, the need for integrative mechanisms has grown stronger the last decade (Rauner and Smith, 2010). Innovations in apprenticeship regimes have been coupled with the emergence of intermediary agencies: Regional training organisations in Australia (Smith, 2010), practice centres in the Netherlands (Onstenk, 2009), intercompany centres in Switzerland (Leemann and Imdorf, 2015), regional integrated vocational training centres in Hungary (Benke, 2010) – and training offices in Norway. Although they differ in function, structure and position with the national VET-systems, we will refer to these units as “boundary institutions” (Scheiding, 2011) which is a term that has been used to highlight the role of new agencies in brokering the academic-industry symbiosis. In our context, the boundaries are drawn between education in vocational schools and apprenticeship in companies – and the larger context of industrial relations and educational systems. There is little international comparative research on how boundary institutions influence these relations and the learning environments of apprentices (Høst et al., 2014).
After in-company training of apprentices became part of the formal education system in Norway in 1994, a number of training offices were established. Training offices are owned by training establishments and are either trade-specific, branch-oriented or interdisciplinary. The apprenticeship contract is defined between the apprentice and the training office, while the training is mainly company-based. Today, around 80 % of the apprentices have training contracts with a training office (Høst et al, 2014).Thus, training offices play an essential role in the Norwegian VET-system and this institution has received a growing international attention.
Norwegian VET is an alternating dual system with a normal track of 2 years in school followed by 2 years in companies. A reform in 2006 (the Knowledge Promotion), introduced common competence goals for the school-based and company-based part of VET. The trainers are expected to develop local plans, content and activities based on a state regulated curriculum and to secure that the objectives are realized through assessment practices. This is what Rauner, Wittig and Deitmer (2010) call an integrated output model. In order to strengthen the monitoring and communication with apprentices, the training offices have implemented E-portfolio systems that may be specific for a trade or a cluster of trades, standardized packages and systems with strong involvement from the training offices (Nore and Lahn, 2014). Given the growing importance of the training offices for the Norwegian apprenticeship system, their staffing is crucial in defining the profile (school/company, local/national and pedagogical ideology). In the trade-specific and branch-owned offices, most of the staff have trade certificates, whilst in the public sector and interdisciplinary offices, more of the staff have higher education.
In this paper, we will use data from a national validation of a German vocational competence assessment tool that we have administered to apprentices through their affiliation with local training offices. We ask to what extent differences in profile on the test performance reflect characteristics of these boundary institutions. Can differences be reflected in the interaction between the training office and apprentices with the use of different e-portfolio systems? Which impact can we see from the profile of the specific training office (trade specific, branch-oriented or inter-disciplinary)?
The MECVET-project is a three-year longitudinal validation study of the German KOMET-instrument (Rauner et al, 2009) in Norwegian VET involving the participation of students (2. year upper secondary school) and apprentices (1. and 2. year in apprenticeship) from three vocations; electricians, health-care workers and industrial-mechanics. Vocational competence was measured as performance on a paper / pencil / computer test with four open-ended assignments representing core work-tasks in the respective vocations and a rating scheme consisting of eight dimensions like presentation, functionality, sustainability, efficiency, work process orientation, health & safety, environmental responsibility/waste disposal and creativity. Thereby a profile of each candidate would add to the data on total scores for each training office and for all apprentices in each of the three vocations. The candidates were are asked to fill out a web-based survey addressing themes like background, vocational commitment, the learning environments of schools/ work places, experiences with training offices, documentation practices etc. The test-administration was done in collaboration with 19 training offices. In the present data-analysis, we will only include the 15 training offices that targeted testing at the end of the apprenticeship period in 2015. The offices are considered separate cases with a large variation of participating apprentices in each office – ranging from one to 48. Given the low number of apprentices and training offices, our comparative multi-case analysis will be qualitative – with quantitative data from tests and surveys providing information on general patterns in the material.
Our data show a clear difference between the three trades. While health care workers have generally high scores on most dimensions in the competence model, the electricians have generally low scores whereas the industrial mechanics vary. The training offices for health care apprentices differ on the dimensions efficiency/profit and for health, safety and environment (HSE). For electricians there are some differences on efficiency and work process orientation. The industrial mechanics have generally low scores for HSE and environmental responsibility/waste disposal, but clear differences between the training offices in efficiency and profit.
Health care is a relatively new trade in Norwegian VET but draws upon traditions with written work plans, reflection in action and documentation/reports from higher health education. Differences in results can partly be explained by the fact that apprentices rotating between four different workplaces generate challenges with continuity. Apprentices in hospital-internal offices had better results on the test.
Training offices for electricians are branch-owned and they all use a branch developed E-portfolio system to report what the apprentices have done and time used. Apprentices working in industrial companies have higher scores on efficiency whereas those engaged by home installation firms are somewhat higher on work process orientation.
Industrial mechanics bear strong VET-traditions with focus on work performance and practical guidance. Best test results are seen in offices where the E-portfolio system is customized to the training establishment, and where the apprentice, the trainer and the training office all document in close cooperation. Weakest results are seen in interdisciplinary offices, in offices without skilled tradesmen in the staff and in offices where the training establishments have a great autonomy.
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