New opportunities or reinforced disadvantages? Variation in returns to low-achieving school leavers’ participation in pre-vocational training programmes (N.O.R.D. 1)

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Germany is famous for its apprenticeship system, which integrates school leavers without a university degree into skilled jobs. However, the German apprenticeship market is rather competitive, and especially low-achieving school leavers have difficulties in gaining access to apprenticeships. In our DFG project NORD I, we asked:

1. Why do low-achieving school leavers face difficulties in entering apprenticeships?

2. Do prevocational programs (short: pre-voc programs) provide a ‘second chance’ to enter apprenticeships or do they put young people on hold and hide youth unemployment?

We used data from the German National Educational Panel Study (NEPS). The data concerns a cohort of 9th graders who were followed in their school-to-work transitions. Low-achieving school leavers are defined as those who have left regular schools and special needs schools for learning disabilities without a school certificate or with only a lower secondary school certificate.

Only half of these low-achieving school leavers enter a regular apprenticeship straight after school. We found that most low-achieving school leavers do not lack aspirations or vocational orientation, but many of them do not apply for an apprenticeship directly after leaving school—regardless of their skills. Employers recruit students based on school certificates, whereas they do not seem to consider social skills and personality traits beyond certificates.

Taking into account selection processes in school-to-work transitions, we showed that pre-voc programs improve low-achieving school leavers’ chances of entering an apprenticeship. In this respect, pre-voc programs open up new opportunities, especially for young people with particularly poor training prospects directly after school. Both those who attained a higher-level school certificate and those who spent time in firms during pre-voc programmes increased their opportunities to access apprenticeships afterwards. However, only those who attained a higher-level school certificate are able to enter higher-status training occupations afterwards.

While we focused on access to apprenticeship in the first project (NORD 1), our extension project NORD 2 investigates the risk of dropping out of these apprenticeship positions.

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