Compulsory education: “The discussion is not really about the young people but rather about other interests.”

In Austria, there is not only a training guarantee for minors, but also a training obligation: all young people must complete an apprenticeship, a training programme or similar measures after completing compulsory schooling if they do not attend secondary school. In his recently published postdoctoral thesis, Alban Knecht investigates the following questions: How does labour market policy support young people entering the labour market? And where does it tend to hinder them? He has analysed political discourses and institutional changes in the promotion of employment and labour market policy for disadvantaged young people in Austria.

Who are the disadvantaged young people you focus on?

Disadvantaged young people are those who face particular challenges. They often come from families that could be described as poor – or they have problems at school, for example due to their migration background. During their childhood, they tend to be seen as victims of circumstances, but when then they grow into the responsibilities ascribed to them by society, it becomes obvious that they are or will be disadvantaged in many areas of life.

Why do these young people often fail to find an apprenticeship?

This may have to do with poorer school performance in comparison, but this does not necessarily reflect their actual abilities. And it has to do with discrimination. For example, discrimination against people with a migration background on the apprenticeship market has been proven time and again. These young people have to apply for jobs much more frequently and yet have much lower chances of getting an apprenticeship.

What can politicians do to tackle the problem?

Austria has a well-developed system for supporting young people who have problems with the transition from school to work, but it is also constantly criticised from various sides. It is therefore always important to ask what significance the political framework has for the development of the system. This is what I deal with in my research.

What characterises this system?

The training guarantee has been in place in Austria since 2007 and was expanded in 2017 to include mandatory training. In addition to regular apprenticeships, there is also the so-called Supra-Company Apprenticeship Training programme (“Überbetriebliche Lehrausbildung”). If young people are unable to find an apprenticeship place, they have the opportunity to complete training in a programme with training workshops and internships. In principle, Supra-Company Training provides a good service: it reduces the gap between the supply of apprenticeships and the demand for apprenticeships – in the long term, fewer and fewer apprenticeships are being offered. And, in fact, youth unemployment in Austria is nonetheless low by European standards.

What about those for whom Supra-Company Apprenticeship Training is not (yet) the right thing?

There are other programmes. Youth Coaching (“Jugendcoaching”) supports young people who are looking for an apprenticeship or the right school or training programme and provides individual counselling. And “Ausbildungsfit” is a programme for those who still lack basic education at the end of compulsory schooling.

That actually sounds like a wonderfully functioning social policy, doesn’t it?

It does, in general. Nevertheless, criticism is justified in some areas. Young asylum seekers, for instance, have been excluded from both the training guarantee and the compulsory training programme. As long as they are in the asylum procedure – and sometimes these procedures take a very long time – they are not allowed to do an apprenticeship or work after their compulsory schooling. This even contradicts international regulations. The exemption law from 2012 which allowed young asylum seekers access to training for shortage occupations was abolished in 2018.  This goes to show how politicians are pursuing entirely different interests here and completely losing sight of the young people themselves. Business representatives have also been very critical of young people in the asylum procedure being prohibited from doing an apprenticeship, as it is not only detrimental to the young people, but also to Austria as a business location.

How do you perceive the political discourse on disadvantaged young people?

The focus is often on the deficits and psychological problems and young people themselves are quickly blamed for not being able to find an apprenticeship – but employers have been offering fewer and fewer jobs. These problems are then cited as the reason why we need this compulsory training programme. Paradoxically, however, the massive undersupply of offers for psychiatry and psychotherapy for children and adolescents remains. Even though this has been widely discussed since the pandemic, there have hardly been any real improvements. This seems to be reminiscent of the old Austrian saying “Two pillars of life never break; prayer and work are their names”. However, only by dealing with mental health problems can we pave the road to good career decisions and fulfilling work.

What interests play a role in the development of the measures?

When it comes to the introduction of compulsory training, some politicians and administrative staff have told us that the purpose of compulsory training is actually to secure the long-term existence of programmes – because once compulsory training has been introduced, no one can shake it. Once again, we see that in the area of labour market support for young people, very little is about the young people themselves. The German title of my post-doctoral thesis translates to “Governing with Social Policy”, because dealing with social problems is often about completely different interests and objectives than the problems suggest.

The conflict surrounding Supra-Company Apprenticeship Training is also typical and significant: A policy orientated towards superficial interests of the economy which is meant to ensure that Supra-Company Training is only used as a stopgap – and does not stand in the way of filling even less attractive apprenticeship positions. For this reason, since 2018, apprentices in Supra-Company Training have been required to permanently apply for regular apprenticeship places. As a result, the number of positions in Supra-Company Training was reduced. Once again, the interest of the young people themselves is being completely negated.

How do young people feel about compulsory education?

One young person we interviewed told us: “I think compulsory education is great. I’m committed, but the others don’t want to work.” This shows how the discriminatory aspect of these systems undermines solidarity. Affected people who also need help adopt the prejudices against the group to which they belong – in order to differentiate themselves from their peers. Offers such as Youth Coaching, Ausbildungsfit and Supra-Company Training are usually appreciated by young people without them asking many questions about potential alternatives. If you want to discuss improvements with them, it is not enough to have them fill out questionnaires; instead, they should understand the system beforehand and be familiarised with alternatives.

And what does commitment mean for motivation?

Some young people have had negative learning experiences at school. If they are consistently unable to fulfil performance requirements at school, they “shut down” internally. When it comes to looking for an apprenticeship, experts who work with young people tend to diagnose a lack of self-efficacy, while administrators and some politicians tend to note a lack of motivation. If another obligation awaits them after school, they are motivated extrinsically, which in turn inhibits intrinsic motivation, i.e. the motivation to commit to their education of their own accord. You can hardly be successful at work in the long term if you feel externally driven. I see this as a problematic aspect of compulsory education.

The labour market is currently empty. Isn’t it the same on the apprenticeship market?

The apprenticeship market is more complex. Who wants to learn which profession? And where can you work? In Vienna, we see that up to 20% of all apprenticeships take place in Supra-Company Training Programmes. But it doesn’t help the young people in Vienna if there are great apprenticeships in Vorarlberg.

Companies also often complain that young people today bring less to the table and are less hard-working than in the past.

As a matter of fact, criticism of young people has been around since Plato. In this particular case, however, people have to consider that the importance of apprenticeships is changing as more young people want to pursue higher and especially academic education. In addition, the demands on the labour force – and probably also on apprentices have changed. Last but not least, the position of employees on the labour market is different today. Due to the shortage of skilled labour, companies are under greater pressure to offer attractive jobs. And the fact that employees are perhaps more demanding and selective in this situation is not necessarily something that warrants criticism.

About the person

Alban Knecht is a postdoctoral assistant at the Department for Educational Science in the Research Unit of Social Pedagogy and Inclusion Research. He specialises in social inequality, poverty research and social policy.

His habilitation thesis was published in January 2024 by Barbara Budrich under the title ”Social Work in the Changing Welfare State. A Policy Analysis of Active Labour Market Policies for Disadvantaged Youth in Austria” (open access).