Moving from project to structure – findings relating from BIBB pilot projects on VETSD on the firm establishment of sustainability

Barbara Hemkes, Christian Melzig

There is increasing recognition that sustainability requires a firm structural basis in vocational education and training rather than being restricted to individual projects. Nevertheless, one issue which largely remains unclear is how sustainability can be specifically integrated into company-based training. The “vocational education and training for sustainable development” (VETSD) pilot projects undertaken by BIBB are delivering ideas in this regard. This article looks back at the pilot projects of the past 20 years and identifies five dimensions which offer starting points for the structural integration of sustainable development into vocational education and training.

The challenge – structural integration of sustainability in training

Education for sustainable development has still not been sufficiently established in every area despite multifarious project activities. In light of this, Germany formulated the objective in 2015 that sustainability should be placed on a firm structural basis across all education sectors as part of the implementation process for the UNESCO Global Action Programme (GAP) on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Specific measures for this purpose were agreed within the scope of the National Action Plan for ESD (NATIONALE PLATTFORM BNE 2017). The most important step undertaken thus far in the area of dual VET came in 2020, when new standard occupational profile requirements relating to “environmental protection and sustainability” were adopted. This modernised and considerably expanded the old “environmental protection” standard occupational profile requirements from the 1990s by introducing a holistic perspective. Account is therefore being taken both of developments on the labour market (cf. HELMRICH/ HUMMEL/WOLTER 2020) and of young people’s aspirations to act responsibly towards the environment and society in their work.

Main focuses of BIBB pilot projects on VETSD

In the area of VETSD, BIBB’s pilot projects have been accorded an especially crucial role over recent decades in programmes for reappraising and implementing the guiding principles of sustainable development, even though the spatial and temporal scope of such projects was and is somewhat limited. The new standard occupational profile requirements now mean that pilot project work faces the task of processing the research findings and practice-oriented results acquired so as to help to close the gap between the aim of integrating sustainability in a structurally robust way and actual occupational training practice.

One good way of examining what findings and results the BIBB pilot projects are able to contribute is to look at their development. This stretches back to the 1990s and gained in significance following the instigation of an initiative extending across all education sectors by the Bund-Länder-Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion (BLK Programme 21, 1999–2004). Taking a retrospective view of the course of this development, five distinct dimensions of specialist content and of didactic and methodological approaches to sustainability can be identified which are of key importance to integration into training. These are outlined below.

Raising awareness of sustainable development

Because the topic of VETSD was still not widely disseminated at the outset, it was deemed necessary that the relevant pilot projects undertaken between 2001 and 2010 should pursue a fundamental process of raising awareness amongst trainees, training staff and training managers. In methodological terms, the focus was on exploring sustainability in everyday life or within a person’s own environment in order to highlight relevant aspects of work actions. Methods from sustainability research, such as identifying a personal ecological footprint, were used to generate a sense of individual concern. One example is offered by the pilot project “ErNach”, in which trainees at SMEs were given the opportunity to develop their own advertising catalogue whilst considering ecological, economic and social criteria (cf. WADEWITZ/HEIM 2007). The evaluation showed that the trainees were receptive to accessing the topic of sustainability in this form and that they had developed a basic understanding of the problem field. Recommendations for sustainable catalogue design were one of the “products” to be derived from this trial task.

Although sustainability is significantly more present in VET today as compared with twenty years ago, the raising of awareness remains an important aspect of VETSD. One approach centres upon ensuring that sustainability topics of relevance on everyday life, such as the trading and swapping of clothes, “flight shaming” and regional sustainability initiatives, are embraced within the company-based training context. The pedagogical objective in this instance is not primarily geared towards direct and practical exploitation within the training occupation. The emphasis is much more on establishing the world of work as a place where real life aspirations have a part to play and on teaching trainees to address such matters via constructive dialogue. The “5-minute discussions” in the ANLIN pilot project are one current example.1 A second approach involves raising awareness of sustainability from specific work experiences at the company. The contradictions that arise in this regard, especially between ecological goals and economic logics, provide a good starting point for trainees to reflect on their own goals, on global challenges and on operational necessities and to try out occupational action options. Some of the teaching and learning tasks from the Pro-DEENLA pilot project pursue precisely these aims. 2

Sector-oriented strategies

Sector-related strategies for fostering sustainable developments were especially to the fore in VETSD pilot projects run between 2010 and 2013. These were tailored towards specific branches which at the time exhibited a high need for sustainable development whilst also displaying manifold areas of potential. Requirements relating to sustainability were addressed in many different ways. These ranged from the curricular development of relevant learning modules to the creation of new occupations and advanced training programmes.

Relevant results included basic modules in the construction sector for building a “system house” in a sustainable way across the different trades. A chamber-certified advanced training programme on sustainable energy management was also developed. In addition to this, the German Qualification Framework (DQR) competence model was applied to sustainability-oriented training profiles in the nutrition and housekeeping sector for the first time, and proposals for sustainability-related training contents were added to the curricula. The latter were successfully integrated into the updating procedure for the training occupation of housekeeper, which was completed recently (cf. BRETSCHNEIDER/CASPER/MELZIG 2020).3

It is certainly true to state that this main funding focus led to the creation of procedures to enable the guiding principles of sustainable development to be linked with work and business processes in the respective sectors and companies in a specific and specialist way. The scientific accompaniment used such a basis to formulate didactic guidelines for VETSD (cf. VOLLMER/KUHL-MEIER 2014), which also offered connectability with the concept of Gestaltungskompetenz (shaping competence) in the general education sector (cf. DE HAAN 2008). These guidelines continue to be used as an important point of alignment for sustainability-oriented VET. They were also instrumental in channelling the following phase of the VETSD main funding focus.

Sustainability-oriented vocational competencies

The modelling and promotion of sustainability-oriented vocational competencies were a key objective of VETSD pilot projects from 2015 to 2021 (for details cf. MELZIG/KUHLMEIER/KRETSCHMER 2021). This main funding priority also shifted the perspective. Pilots were aimed at the areas of potential for sustainable development offered by the occupations rather than merely addressing deficits in the sustainable alignment of VET. The central question of: “What does an occupation need in order to meet requirements for sustainability?” has now been replaced by: “What does this occupation offer in terms of supporting sustainable development?”. The idea is that both trainees and training staff should be reinforced in their ability to help shape the world of work via informed decisions based on sustainable thinking and actions. The focus was placed on selected commercial occupations and on craft trade and other occupations in the food industry. The pilot projects helped identify areas of domain-specific potential such as use of combined transport routes in forwarding/logistics or the selection of raw materials at a bakery. This in turn allowed for the derivation, piloting and evaluation of specific work tasks, teaching-learning methods or entire curricula both for trainees and training staff. Not the least of the outcomes was the development of domain-specific narratives which can be used to describe the constructive role of the respective occupations in the shaping of sustainable development. It was, for instance, possible to designate management assistants for retail services as shapers of sustainable consumption. Cooperation between scientific accompaniment and the pilot projects facilitated the creation of cross-project and occupation-specific competence modellings, which are used for purposes such as (further) development of curricula in initial and continuing training and are being adapted to other occupations.

The company as a sustainable learning venue

Sustainability-related competence acquisition takes place at the company as trainees constantly engage with the real conditions of occupational activity. For this reason, it is important for sustainability-oriented occupational actions to be tested and experienced at this learning venue, including and especially with regard to dealing with the contradictions between economic, social and ecological objectives. The shaping of sustainable company-based learning venues in dual training was thus a core focus of Funding Line II of the pilot projects from 2015 to 2019 (for details cf. MELZIG/ KUHLMEIER/KRETSCHMER 2021). This addressed the second priority area of the ESD Global Action Programme, “Transforming learning and training environments” (cf. DUK 2014, p. 18) and operationalised it for the company side of VET.

The overarching objective was to ascertain what makes a company a “sustainable learning venue” and how it can be (further) developed to this end. Although concepts for sustainability-oriented organisational development and reporting were already in place, very little consideration has hitherto been accorded to company-based initial and continuing training processes. For this reason, the pilot projects included the creation of aspects such as specific teaching and learning settings or the structuring of sustainability-oriented organisational development processes at the company. One example is represented by the “INE Toolbox”4, a central product of the pilot project InnoNE (cf. FRERICHS et al. 2021). This is primarily directed at small and medium-sized commercial companies and uses various management instruments and teaching/learning materials to guide such firms in the autonomous planning and realisation of sustainability-oriented innovation projects at the company or within the company environment. The scientific accompaniment of the pilot projects assessed the different tools and organisational concepts by describing an indicators-backed model for a sustainable learning venue. This has produced a structural guide for companies and organisations which can be applied at the company and may also be deployed for sustainability reporting (cf. FEICHTENBEINER/WEBER/HANTSCH 2020).

Training of staff providing training

A retrospective consideration of the pilot project main funding focus reveals that not all approaches were successful. However, many proved their worth or were capable of further development. These now provide a recourse both for implementation of the new standard occupational profile requirements as part of the process of updating occupations and in terms of structuring training practice. Although the pilot projects relating to VETSD have previously been primarily directed towards the development of individual sustainability-oriented VET measures, the focus now needs to be on using the existing findings for broadly based realisation in VET practice at all levels. Training staff are key in this respect, but require content and didactic support in order to encourage the trainees at their company to acquire sustainability-oriented vocational competencies. The same applies to shaping the company as a sustainable learning venue. For this reason, a main funding focus entitled “Vocational education and training for sustainable development in transfer for training staff 2020–2022” (VETSD Transfer) was launched in November 2020.5 The aim is for the pilot projects to use the results of projects from 2015–2019 to generate findings regarding transfer conditions and transfer models for VETSD so as to provide the foundation for a larger implementation programme.

Forecast – further development of VETSD for transformative education and training

The dimensions of VETSD established in the various phases of the pilot project funding build upon one another and are interlinked. Further developments occur because dimensions are differentiated and specified and by dint of the fact that the findings allow new dimensions to be tapped into. This has led to the development and piloting of concrete instruments for company-based training practice and to cross-occupational sector-related concepts or advanced training measures, e.g. at chamber or association level. Last but not least, as previously depicted, the pilot projects help with the shaping of nationally standardised regulatory measures.

The current fundamental ideas behind sustainability-oriented VET relate to identifying areas of potential for sustainability in specific occupations, to formulating sustainability-related competences in a domain-specific way, and to exploiting the company as a space of resonance for sustainable action in its role as a learning venue. Sustainability is therefore an integral part of vocational competencies. It is empirically substantiated from training practice and undergoes development in a theory-led way from within VET research (cf. REBMANN/SCHLÖMER 2018). In this sense, VET adjusts to the requirements of sustainable development as well as gaining relevance by being a shaper of this development itself. This was and remains an essential element of the purpose behind BIBB’s pilot projects.

In future, the likelihood is that further emphasis will need to be placed on linking sustainability and digitalisation. Transformative occupational vocational competencies are needed in order to be able to shape the current and coming changes. VET offers considerable areas of potential for transformative education that links competence acquisition with specific actions (WGBU 2011). These can also lead the way for other education sectors. Aligning VET towards transformation also makes an essential contribution towards its modernisation. BIBB pilot projects can and will seek to assist this purpose in future.


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(All links: status 10/08/2021)

Head of Division at BIBB

Academic researcher at BIBB


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 3/2021): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin