Access to vocational education and training for refugees

Insights into Germany, Austria and Switzerland

Robin Busse, Julia Bock-Schappelwein, Marlise Kammermann

Vocational education and training is considered to be crucial for the successful occupational integration of young refugees. Findings from Germany, Austria and Switzerland show that these countries are adopting different routes in order to support the integration of refugees despite commonalities in the structure of their VET systems. The article mainly focuses on the phases of preparation for and access to VET.

Vocational education and training as an opportunity

In many European countries, vocational education and training (VET) is ascribed a key role in the integration of refugees into training and employment (cf. Jeon 2019). This particularly applies to refugees who came as immigrants in the peak years of 2015/16 (cf. Biffl/Huber 2023). These persons are predominantly of an age1 relevant for VET. Upon arrival, most do not hold vocational qualifications recognised in the host country. The reasons for this include different labour market rationales in the countries of origin, difficult recognition procedures, and a lack of access to VET (cf. Romiti et al. 2016). Successful occupational integration of refugees in VET is a challenge for the host countries and their (vocational) education systems because of the specific initial prerequisites (e.g. stresses due to forced migration, duration of the forced migration and experience, duration of the asylum procedure process, interruptions to employment and VET, deskilling; cf. Bock-Schappelwein/Huber 2015; Köpping 2021). At the same time, the economy in Europe is reliant on immigrants because of the demographic shift and the associated shortage of skilled workers2 (cf. Le Mouillour 2017). In this context, it is important to understand how well VET systems are able to integrate refugees and what factors play a role in this.

The aim here is to highlight existing findings regarding access to VET for refugees in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. A comparison between these three countries is pertinent for the following reasons. Germany, Austria and Switzerland were amongst the ten European countries taking in the most refugees in 2015/16.3 In addition to this, the VET systems of the three countries have important commonalities (cf. Busemeyer/Trampusch 2011) and exhibit similar structures in the transition from training to work (cf. Lindinger/Moser 2017). In all three cases, VET also ensures that low-qualified immigrants are able to acquire vocational qualifications and can subsequently take up skilled jobs (cf. Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln/Avenir Suisse 2017). The main focus of this article is on the VET access of young refugees who arrived around the peak of migration in the years 2015/16. The reason for this limitation is that significant studies on VET access of this group of refugees are already available.

Empirical findings on the occupational integration of refugees

Due to the differences in the landscape of the data, the country insights provide different perspectives on access to VET for refugees. Key parameters for the phase of prevocational training are reported first. These are necessary for an understanding of the subsequent consideration of access to VET for refugees.

Prevocational training

During the initial years following their arrival, young refugees are reliant on language support provision and on vocational orientation. In Germany, large parts of these services take place within the scope of the numerous vocational preparation schemes at vocational schools (cf. Seeber et al. 2017), as part of a measure instigated by the Federal Employment Agency (cf. Granato/Junggeburth 2017) and within the programmes of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) (e.g. Berufliche Orientierung für Geflüchtete [Career Orientation for Immigrants] – BOF, cf. Benneker/Heinzelmann/Lenz in this issue).

Around the time of the asylum inflow peak, Austria offered further training measures alongside the provision in schools and labour market policy measures. As part of the Adult Education Initiative, refugees aged between 15 and 19 who have completed compulsory schooling and who are not attending school and have not been accepted into labour administration measures or into federal state initiatives are able to avail themselves of basic training courses, vocational guidance and training support or can complete a mandatory school leaving qualification via the second chance route. 8,252 young refugees took part in these measures in 2016 and 2017. Measured against the estimated size of the target group, it was thus possible to cover 29 percent of the basic training requirement (cf. Steiner/Eggersteiner/Baumegger 2018).

In Switzerland, the cantons offer various programmes in the form of basic language (or literacy) courses, vocational guidance and one-year bridging courses aimed at integration into VET. A training curriculum for these preparation programmes has also been in place since 2023. This acts as an implementation recommendation and assists the cantons in defining preparatory education and training measures for entry into an integration pre-apprenticeship (PAI) or directly into VET. Modules of these measures include basic skills in one of the country’s official languages and in the application of information and communication technologies and transferable competencies (cf. Staatssekretariat für Migration 2023a).

Access to VET

The available findings indicate that refugees face numerous obstacles with regard to access to VET. These can be observed in the interplay between general structural conditions (including regional and sector-specific circumstances on the labour market, role of companies providing training), legal factors (such as labour market access during an ongoing asylum procedure, duration of the asylum process) and individual prerequisites (e.g. language skills, networks, vocational orientation) (cf. Köpping 2021). For Germany, the results of the IAB-BAMF-SOEP survey of refugees show that around 14 percent of the refugees aged between 18 and 30 have progressed to company-based VET within five years of arrival in the country4(cf. Meyer/Winkler 2023). The findings present a considerably different picture if account is taken of sample data from the BA/BIBB Forced Migration Survey 2018, which include applicants with refugee status registered with the Federal Employment Agency. The findings for Germany show that around 45 of registered applicants with refugee status were completing company-based VET in 2018. Work experience as part of internships increased the likelihood of entering company-based VET for refugees, whereas an absence of school leaving qualifications and language difficulties were associated with significantly lesser chances of entry to VET (cf. Eberhard/Schuss 2021).

In Austria, the apprenticeship statistics of the Austrian Economic Chambers provide indications of how many refugees have already achieved the transition into apprenticeship training. In 2016, only 0.8 percent of apprentices originated from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. This figure had risen to 2.7 percent by 2021. Measured against their population size in Austria, this highlights the increasing significance of apprentices from these countries. The number of Afghans apprentices as a proportion of Afghans nationals in Austria rose from 1.7 percent to 3.7 percent during this period. The corresponding increases for nationals from Iraq and Syria were 0.5 percent to 1.2 percent and 0.6 percent to 1.9 percent respectively. As Köpping (2021) demonstrates, refugees are particularly sought after in occupations with recruitment problems. They are, however, also in demand in “conventional” training occupations such as plant electrician, management assistant for retail services and cook.

Switzerland’s Integration Agenda stipulates that two thirds of refugees and temporarily admitted persons aged between 16 and 25 should have begun VET five years after their arrival. This goal has not yet been achieved, and the following picture emerges for the 2015 entry cohort5. Five years after entering the country, only one in two refugees or temporarily admitted persons was preparing for, was in or had completed post-compulsory education. The PAI pilot programme, introduced by the Confederation and the cantons in 2018, could help to ensure that this objective soon becomes a tangible reality. It provides a one-year preparation programme for refugees and temporarily admitted persons to access VET (cf. Scharnhorst/Kammermann 2019; Kammermann/Stalder/Schönbächler 2022). The programme, which is now also open to persons with protected status and to young people from EU, EFTA and third countries, was permanently adopted in 2024 (cf. Staatssekretariat für Migration 2023b). The findings to date testify to the success of the PAI. Two thirds of the participants had been offered an apprenticeship two months prior to graduation, while a further 14 percent were still in the planning stage for VET (cf. Stalder et al. 2024).

An understanding of occupational integration requires evidence-based VET monitoring

This spotlight on the current available findings in Germany, Austria and Switzerland permits various insights into access to VET for refugees and also testifies to the enormous endeavours being undertaken at an individual as well as at federal/federal state/cantonal level. At the same time, the findings regarding access to VET must be related to labour market access for refugees. There are clear indications of considerable progress in labour market integration in all three countries. A rise in the employment rate is one of the ways in which this is reflected (cf. for Germany: Brücker et al. 2023; for Austria: Huber/Böhs 2017; for Switzerland: Staatssekretariat für Migration 20236).

This article underlines the relevance of VET monitoring to a systematic understanding of VET within the context of forced migration. Evidence-based findings relating to mechanisms, conditions governing success and obstacles to the access to VET provide important points of reference for reflecting on and improving existing and future occupational integration measures. The country comparison makes it clear that such evidence-based findings are available to differing degrees. While all three countries have extensive official data at their disposal, insufficient consideration of migration and forced migration background often means that the VET system for refugees cannot be fully mapped. In Germany, surveys such as the IAB-BAMF-SOEP survey of refugees also facilitate detailed statements on the prior learning and educational pathways of such persons (e.g. access to VET). There is, however, also a lack of findings regarding the quality of the numerous programmes of prevocational training in Germany, e.g. with regard to the opportunities to leverage the transition to VET. In Switzerland, by way of contrast, the PAI pilot programme offers comprehensive data on the conditions governing the success of prevocational training. In Austria, statements regarding the apprenticeship situation of refugees are mostly made on the basis of official data and are therefore limited.

Despite the heterogeneous findings, factors for successful access to VET for refugees are revealed which are of significance alongside general legal and structural conditions. Taking Germany as an example, there are indications that internships increase VET opportunities for refugees. The transition to VET also requires vocational orientation processes, which are in turn fostered within the schemes, measures and programmes of prevocational training which have been established. In Switzerland, PAI is proving to be a highly successful prevocational training measure in terms of placing participants into VET. Notwithstanding the findings forming the object of consideration here, there needs to be a focus on further research regarding the conditions governing prevocational training for refugees and the impact of vocational orientation instruments.


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(All links: status 27/05/2024)

Robin Busse
Professor, Technical University of Darmstadt

Julia Bock-Schappelwein
Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO), Vienna

Marlise Kammermann
Dr, Senior Lecturer and Senior Researcher at the Swiss Federal University for Vocational Education and Training (SVUVET) Zollikofen


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 2/2024): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin