Universities Vs Skills Training, by Philipp Müller

Apprenticeships and vocational training might offer better prospects than a university degree

Since coming to the UK, I have noticed that many people in ‘rich’ countries look down on manual work. While apprenticeships and vocational training are highly regarded and valued in German-speaking countries, in many other countries, they are frowned on. Parents push their children into universities; thinking that one must have a university degree in order to get a well-paid and secure job. However, as a recent article in The Economist (‘Dropped stitches’, 22nd June 2013) makes clear this is not necessarily the case:

Behind the elegant clothing in Mr Scervino’s boutiques in cities like London, Moscow and Tokyo is a range of artisanal skills—pattern-making, cutting, sewing, embroidery, knitting and the like—that turn his ideas into finished items. Hand-stitching dozens of diamond shapes in black chiffon for an evening dress, for example, calls for patience, good eyesight and a manual dexterity that comes only with much practice. Many workers at Mr Scervino’s factory near Florence are well into middle age, and picked up their skills at home or in one of the small dressmaking and shirtmaking businesses that used to be numerous in Italian cities. As these workers head towards retirement it is unclear who will take their place.

What keeps Mr Scervino awake at night also troubles firms making the leather belts, bags and purses for which Florence is famous, and whose production gives work to around 12,000 people in and around the city. Gianfranco Lotti, who makes bags under his own name as well as for a global luxury brand, represents a lost Florentine tradition. Now approaching 70, he learned to make bags completely by hand through an apprenticeship that began when he was 14. Mr Lotti laments the shift from craftsmanship to machinery. Even so, skills are still needed, and the cost of teaching them is beyond the reach of many firms.

“The loss of know-how is dramatic,” says Franco Baccani, the boss of B&G, which makes bags for Gucci, Cartier and other brands. Although it also relies partly on machines nowadays, B&G continues to rely on the human skills needed to select hides, cut and prepare them, and assemble and stitch the parts that make up bags. Shoemakers are in a similar fix. In the Marches region east of Florence, around 60% of the 700 production jobs at Tod’s Group, a big maker of fancy footwear, are highly skilled; but despite offering good pay and conditions, and government-backed apprenticeships for raw recruits, the group is struggling to keep them filled.

With youth unemployment running at 35% in Italy and annual net pay for a young leather-cutter starting at around €18,000 ($24,000), fashion firms ought to have applicants beating down their doors. Like people in other rich countries, Italians tend to look down on manual work, however skilled, and families prefer to push their children towards careers in the professions and the public sector. [Bold mine -PM] The education system, at all levels, generally provides a poor preparation for working life. Italian universities are full of youngsters studying subjects in which they are not interested but which their parents think are good, regardless of the job prospects.

I remember watching a documentary on TV some years ago, which showed an Italian family with four children. Three children had gone to university and into the professions – and were now all unemployed. One had learned a trade and had a job. In comparison to Italy, youth unemployment is 8% in Germany, 8.7% in Austria and 4.4% in Switzerland.[1] Of course, the high regard in these countries for apprenticeships is not the only reason for their much lower rates. Still, it would be good if people in countries with high youth unemployment accepted that starting an apprenticeship and learning a trade or craft is a worthy choice for their kids.

[1] Unemployment Statistics

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