Company training cooperation agreements

Analyses of areas and patterns of cooperation based on the Reference Company System (RCS)

Margit Ebbinghaus, Regina Dionisius

Over recent years, many companies have reduced their commitment to training or even ceased to provide training altogether. This is due to changed conditions within companies and on the training market. At the same time, there is high demand for well-trained skilled workers. Concepts are thus required which will enable companies to continue participation in training despite the altered general conditions. Company training cooperation agreements are also discussed within this context. The article uses a company survey to present the areas of training in which companies currently cooperate.

Training cooperation agreements gain greater attention in times of crisis

Firms which participate in dual vocational education and training usually carry out the company-based component of training by themselves. They may, however, also join forces with other companies. Previous discussions regarding collaborative arrangements of this kind have mainly deployed the key term cooperative training whilst also centring on companies which are unable to cover the full scope of learning contents included in the training regulations. This approach has enjoyed particular attention whenever dual VET was undergoing times of crisis. Since the mid-1980s, repeated attempts have been made to alleviate training shortages for young people by acquiring the involvement of companies which lack suitability to provide training on their own. The arguments have been that cooperation agreements save costs, reduce training overheads, increase quality, and enhance the attractiveness of training for young people (c.f. inter alia MEYER/SCHWIEDRZIK 1984, RASKOPP 2002, PAHL/SCHÜTTE/VERMEHR 2003). This topic has seen a discernible revival over the past few years (c.f. inter alia Alliance for Initial and Continuing Training 2019-2021). The propounded benefits of company training consortia are the same ones that were mentioned before (c.f. inter alia ESSER 2017). One new element, however, is that these advantages are now being presented in order to persuade companies already providing training to continue with this commitment despite higher training costs, increased overheads and rising matching problems (c.f. inter alia BIBB 2019). Training consortia have also been included as one of the instruments which are intended to help save company participation in training from the current coronavirus crisis.1 Currently, therefore, cooperation arrangements in training are primarily being viewed as a pathway towards retaining companies as training providers as general conditions change. However, it remains to be seen which models might find appeal.


Black box of training cooperation agreements – company survey on current practice

It is true to say that investigations into training cooperation between companies have been conducted as the waves of attention have emerged. However, the intermittent nature of these studies means that there is a lack of up-to-date knowledge regarding how widespread company collaborative training ventures actually are.2 Gaps are also revealed in the status of findings concerning the areas of training in which cooperation takes place and whether certain patterns of fields of cooperation can be identified. A survey of companies providing training, which took place in 2019 prior to the coronavirus pandemic and used the Reference Company System (RCS), was carried out with the aim of providing information in this regard (cf. Information Box). The questions posed to the companies included whether they cooperated with other firms in training, how long such an arrangement had been in existence and to which of the following five areas of training the collaboration extended to encompass.

  • Recruitment of trainees – the extent to which a company pools its resources, capacities and competencies with those of other firms in order to strengthen market presence and increase the attractiveness of training provision.
  • Secondment of own trainees – the extent to which a company arranges for its own trainees to complete sections of training at cooperating firms.
  • Intake of external trainees – the extent to which trainees from cooperating firms complete parts of training at the company surveyed.
  • Additional qualifications – whether trainees from cooperating firms are able to avail themselves of additional qualifications offered by the company surveyed.
  • Examination preparation – the extent to which examination preparation for trainees from all companies participating in the cooperation agreement is conducted centrally by one of the firms.

The compilation of these areas is based on existing research findings (cf. inter alia SCHLOTTAU 2003) and on the vocational education and training discourse on company training agreements (cf. inter alia RAUNER 2003, ESSER 2017).

Companies cooperating on training were asked to use a four-level scale (cf. Fig. 1) to state the degree to which the cooperation agreements they maintained embraced each of the five areas.


Company survey on company cooperation agreements using the RCS

  • Investigation population
    Companies listed in BIBB’s RCS were surveyed. The RCS is an access panel comprising around 1,290 firms of all sizes and from all sectors and regions of Germany which have agreed to make themselves available for brief questionnaires and which were actively involved in providing training when they were included in the panel. Although the survey does not constitute a random sample, the fact that all size categories, regions and sectors are taken into account means that the RCS is able to deliver results which reflect trends effectively.
  • Method of data collection, net sample
    As is usual in the case of the RCS, questionnaires were conducted in the form of standardised surveys. Most companies prefer to reply in writing by post, whilst a smaller proportion opts for an electronic return. 371 companies took part (29%). 65 percent of these are smaller companies with fewer than 100 employees, and 35 percent are larger firms employing 100 staff or more. *
  • Evaluation method
    Data was evaluated using the Mplus statistics package. Following a descriptive evaluation, a latent class analysis was used to investigate the extent to which combination patterns can be recognised in the areas encompassed by the company training cooperation agreement. The four-level response scale was dichotomised for this purpose. The answer categories “always” and “often” were subsumed into the characteristic of “yes” (meaning that cooperation takes place in this area), whilst the categories “seldom” and “never” were combined to form the characteristic of “no” (i.e. cooperation does not occur in this area). The aim of the analysis is to identify groups of companies which exhibit similar cooperation patterns. Determination of classes or number of groups was based on GEISER (2011) and GEISER/OKUN/GRAND (2014).
  • Investigation period
    The survey was conducted between mid-February and mid-April 2019 and included a follow-up phase after approximately half of the field time. It took place as part of the BIBB research project “Company training partnerships – structures, areas of potential and risks for SMEs”.

*Cf. for further information www.bibb.de/dokumente/pdf/RBS_Info_42.pdf (retrieved: 07.12.2020)

Company training cooperation agreements in practice – prevalence and object areas

Figure 1
Figure 1: To which extent are various areas the object of company training cooperation agreements? (Multiple responses)

A total of 37 percent of the RCS firms surveyed work together with one or more other companies in the field of training. There are two interesting and notable aspects here. One of these is the fact that the proportion is so high, given the widespread assumption that training cooperation agreements are somewhat of a fringe phenomenon (cf. inter alia BAHL et al. 2019, LEEMANN/IMDORF 2015). Secondly, virtually all of these companies (97%) could also in theory provide training without partners. There are scarcely any differences in this regard between smaller and larger companies, companies from western and eastern Germany and companies from various sectors. Differences related to size are, however, revealed in respect of participation in training cooperation per se. Smaller firms are significantly less likely to enter into training cooperation arrangements than larger companies (25% as opposed to 59%). By way of contrast, companies from western and eastern Germany display almost the same frequency of participation in training cooperation agreements (37% versus 38%) as companies from the sectors of manufacturing, trade and commerce, transport, and the sectors of services and administration (37% compared to 39%). In terms of content, as emphasised in earlier collaborative funding and research, cooperation is particularly aligned to division amongst the companies of the task of imparting the occupational profile positions prescribed by the training regulations (cf. Fig. 1). Instruction of external trainees at the company in question is more likely to be a regular or occasional component of cooperation than the reverse process, i.e. the secondment of the company’s own trainees to other firms for training sessions. This is connected with the fact that the firms actively involved in cooperation includes a high proportion of larger companies which are more likely to host external trainees than to send their own trainees out on secondment. The opposite process applies in the case of smaller companies. With regard to the provision and imparting of qualifications which go beyond the obligatory training occupation profile, just over half of companies cooperate with other companies either regularly (29%) or at least occasionally (26%).

Measures undertaken prior to and at the conclusion of training are less likely to be an object of cooperation (cf. Fig. 1). However, the data also shows that, if companies collaborate to prepare trainees for the examination together, then this is more likely to take the form of a fixed arrangement (26%) rather than take place sporadically (12%). The opposite picture applies in the case of joint recruitment of trainees. If resources and competencies are pooled at all in this area, then it is more probable that this happens occasionally (27%) rather than regularly (8%).

Company types – patterns in training cooperation

Figure 2
Figure 2: Patterns of company training cooperation agreements*
* Statistical parameters are available online at www.bwp-zeitschrift.de/g435

The previous results show that the individual areas display a varying likelihood of being an object of training cooperation agreements. They do not, however, reveal whether and which areas form a component of training collaboration at the same time or the extent to which there are companies which exhibit similar patterns of cooperation. Latent class analyses (cf. Information Box) were performed to investigate this. This enabled three patterns of cooperation to be identified. On the basis of the associated cooperation areas, these patterns can be designated as “rotation-oriented”, “market-oriented” and “result-oriented” (cf. Fig. 2).3 Consideration needs to be accorded to the fact that the chosen designations relate to particularly prominent characteristics which stand out against the other patterns. Another point to be taken into account is that the patterns are based on a relatively small sample size of N = 138 cooperating companies. For this reason, they should be viewed as an initial empirical exploration and should not be perceived as a generalisable depiction of company cooperation practices.

Rotation-oriented cooperation is a characteristic displayed by 42 percent of companies cooperating in training. The cooperation activities of these firms are largely directed towards allowing trainees to switch between companies. One company sends its own trainees to complete certain sections of training at partner firms, whilst the trainees from these partner firms receive instruction in other components of training at the first company. Cooperation seems to focus solely on imparting the contents required by the training regulations since additional qualifications do not form part of the equation. The opportunity to learn at different companies is a possibility which has not been much exploited in training marketing thus far. This leads to the conclusion that joint measures to recruit trainees play only a subordinate role in the case of companies in this group.

An entirely different situation applies in respect of the second group of companies cooperating in a market-oriented way, which accounts for twelve percent of firms and makes up the smallest category. A joint market presence for the recruitment of trainees forms a main focus of the cooperation activities of such companies. The prospect of acquiring additional qualifications is likely to be deployed as a marketing instrument. The offering and imparting of these qualifications is a further key element of cooperation within this group.

The third group, which is the largest by dint of the fact that it incorporates 46 percent of companies, is characterised by a result-oriented pattern of cooperation. Unlike the other two categories, companies in this group do not narrowly focus their cooperation activities on certain areas of training. Instead, they work together with other firms in a broadly based way. Nevertheless, one conspicuous aspect here is that joint preparation of trainees for examinations is a significant component of the cooperation arrangements which are maintained.

A final consideration of the structural composition of the company types reveals a strong similarity from a regional point of view between the companies cooperating in a rotation-oriented way and the firms which pursue a market-oriented approach. In each case, over four fifths of the companies falling within these two groups are located in the western part of Germany (85% and 81% respectively). In the group which cooperates in a result-oriented way, the proportion of companies based in western Germany is lower (72%). In relation to size structure, on the other hand, the companies cooperating in a rotation-oriented way exhibit significant similarities with the result-oriented type of cooperating company. Larger firms are more strongly represented than smaller companies in both of these groups, the figures being 64 percent and 56 percent respectively. By way of contrast, the proportion of smaller companies belonging to the market-oriented type of company is a conspicuously high 75 percent. The rotation-oriented and market-oriented types of cooperating companies also show considerable similarity if differentiation takes place by (strongly aggregated) sectors. In each case, just under two thirds of companies (62% and 64% respectively) form part of the manufacturing, trade and commerce and transport sectors whilst just over a third are from the sectors of services and administration. This sectoral relationship is more balanced in the case of the market-oriented type of cooperating company (56% as opposed to 44%).


Broader use requires marketing

The data from the RCS shows that training cooperation agreements are not only a model for companies which lack suitability to provide training on their own. The analyses also make it clear that there is more than one form of cooperation. Alongside cooperation agreements which primarily concentrate on the exchange of trainees, there are also other types of arrangements which go beyond this or which address completely different aspects. These may include joint examination preparation, the imparting of additional qualifications or the search for trainees.

This indicates that companies enter training cooperation ventures for different reasons and with different objectives. One supposition, for example, is that market-oriented cooperation constitutes a reaction to the declining demand for training on the part of young people4 This assumption is supported by this group’s high proportion of smaller companies, which are particularly affected by recruitment problems. In other words, companies seem to view cooperation agreements as offering the potential to overcome challenges in training in a better way than would be achievable by going it alone.

This finding shows that current initiatives5 for taking part in cooperation agreements in order to counter the cuts to company participation in training that have been occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic are based on empirically demonstrable company interests. The extent to which this particular cause will produce independent types of cooperation remains to be seen. Just as in previous times of crisis, training cooperation agreements are, however, unlikely to become an instant runaway success, even given the current general circumstances. One particular reason for this is that many companies are still unaware of the possibility of collaborating with others in training (cf. ECKELT et al. 2020). Training cooperation agreements therefore cannot merely be used for marketing purposes. They also require their own marketing if the inherent opportunities they afford are to be exploited in a broader fashion.


The patterns of company training cooperation agreements presented in Fig. 2 are based on a latent class analysis (LCA). The parameters for the four models estimated have been published and explained online at www.bwp-zeitschrift.de/g435.

  • 1

    Cf. Benchmarks for a Federal Programme www.bmbf.de/files/131_20_Eckpunkte_Ausbildung_sichern_Ansicht02.pdf, as well as the “#AzubiSharing” project from the North Westphalia Chamber of Commerce and Industry at www.ihk-nordwestfalen.de/coronavirus/azubisharing-4759586 (status in each case: 07.12.2020)

  • 2

    Although the training contract usually states if training is to take place at more than one company, this characteristic is not statistically recorded.

  • 3

    Statistical parameters are included in the electronic supplement.

  • 4

    The BIBB research project “Company training partnerships – structures, areas of potential and risks for SMEs” is currently using qualitative case studies to continue to investigate such suppositions.

  • 5

    Cf. footnote 1


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Academic researcher at BIBB

Academic researcher at BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 4/2020): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin