Dear Ministers, ladies and gentlemen:

Let me start by thanking the Latvian Presidency for organising this important event and for your high-level commitment to work on skills and apprenticeships. Today we mark the two-year anniversary of the European Alliance for Apprenticeships and begin the next phase of our co-operation, taking apprenticeships to the next level, and mobilising many more to get involved.

Today, we will witness commitments from 38 new partners to our Alliance: Partners who see the value of its objectives and want to be a part of its success.

This morning, Ministers agreed the five key priorities for vocational education and training for the five years to come.

Promoting work-based learning and apprenticeships is top of this list. It is therefore appropriate that we dedicate this afternoon to the issue.

EAfA – A multi-stakeholder initiative

Let us consider why the Alliance is appealing:

This is the only European platform which combines the efforts of stakeholders, to strengthen the supply, quality and image of apprenticeships.

Today, we are 26 Member States and two regional authorities, with concrete commitments. And through the support of the European Training Foundation, we are delighted to also welcome candidate countries Albania, Montenegro and Turkey as members; together with Norway and Switzerland, they join the Alliance today.

We now have a total of 84 pledges from social partners, companies and business associations; from chambers of commerce, industry and crafts; from education and training providers; from regional authorities, and from youth and other non-profit organisations.

A truly broad and powerful Alliance.

In taking the Alliance to the next level, I am also particularly pleased that many employers are responding to the call for greater engagement.

All Alliance for Apprenticeship members have committed to opening up more opportunities for young people to combine learning and work as a springboard to quality employment and good career prospects.

Apprenticeships – a successful form of Work-Based Learning

We only have to look at our recent economic past to understand the importance of apprenticeships.

The legacy of the financial and economic crisis is unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment across Europe. Our young people have paid and continue to pay the highest price for the crisis.

Evidence indicates that vocational education and training has been under-valued, including by students and their families. Too often, when making study choices priority is given to academic pathways.

This has resulted in considerable skills mismatches. There are currently 23 and a half million people unemployed, half of which have been so for more than a year. And if we look at the young, 4.7 million are without a job. It is unacceptable that one in five of those wanting to work cannot do so.  At the same time 40% of companies report that they have difficulty finding workers with the right skills and almost 2 million vacancies are unfilled.

Countries that have a strong tradition of VET and apprenticeships - and that emphasise the quality of these systems – have fared better. Employment rates among young people and the transition to work smoother.

Studies show that quality apprenticeships lead to quality jobs. They should be a first choice for many young people. We  need to do more to ensure that they have that first choice.

The results of the survey of EAfA members

Recently, the European Commission conducted a survey of non-governmental stakeholders involved in the European Alliance for Apprenticeships. The results of this survey show positive developments in both the quality and image of apprenticeships.

It was encouraging to see that almost 3 in 5 of the European Alliance for Apprenticeship members responding to the survey reported an increase in the number of apprenticeship places they are making available. More also signalled a planned increase in apprenticeship numbers for next year.

To give you a few examples from Alliance members: Siemens had increased its number of apprentices to over 1,500 across the EU by the end of last year; while the Austrian Economic Chamber plans to create 90 new apprenticeships in Bulgaria and 60 in Romania from September 2015.

Earlier this month I participated in an event to celebrate the achievements of one of the first members of European Alliance for Apprenticeships – the Alliance for Youth - initiated by Nestlé. In the last year alone, this partnership of businesses has provided 16,000 apprenticeship and traineeship opportunities.

However, in some countries, like France and Germany, the overall supply of apprenticeships has gone down. As European Commissioner with responsibility for Skills, I want to work with you to reverse that trend.

The key priority: involving companies offering apprenticeships

This brings me to a key dimension and focus of today’s conference – and that is the involvement of the private sector. In the end, without employers on board, including companies, we would not have any apprenticeships!

I am therefore very pleased to announce the companies and business associations that also join the Alliance today:

  • Adecco has committed itself to providing work-based training for 10,000 young people by 2017;
  • AXA will provide 10,000 paid apprenticeships or traineeships by 2018;
  • Safran plans to offer at least 3,000 apprenticeships per year;
  • The UK company, Capita will more than double apprenticeships this year to over 500; and
  • CSR Europe pledge 50,000 quality apprenticeships or internships in member companies by 2017.

I want to engage further with the business community in coming months to further increase apprenticeship offers. And I want to see how the European Commission can support companies and others to expand apprenticeships.

A particular focus on SMEs in the months to come

One specific branch of the business world that I want to focus on is small and medium-sized enterprises.

SMEs represent 99% of all European businesses and are the backbone of our economy. In the past five years, they have created around 85% of new jobs and provided two-thirds of the total private sector employment in the EU. But they often face specific challenges, to find the right apprenticeship candidates and to invest in their development. This is why I want to see what we can do together to support SMEs to get involved.

Intermediary bodies – such as chambers of commerce, industry and crafts can also do a lot help get SMEs on board. Already, several chambers are part of the Alliance and are working strongly and more join today.

The European Commission has funding available to help SMEs get involved and organises practical events and exchange of good practice. I want to step-up what we can do here. I have asked the EU's Cedefop agency – a centre of expertise in vocational education and training and skills forecasting to conduct a study to assess on-going progress.

The positive role of Social Partners

Ladies and gentlemen, Social Partners have also an essential role to play in developing quality VET and apprenticeship programmes.

Today, I am glad to say we have new joint pledges from sectoral social partners at European level in the construction, chemical, business, and education sectors. We can also be very pleased to see a strong mobilisation of national trade unions of teachers.

The European Association of Regional and Local Authorities for Lifelong Learning will also be a real asset to the Alliance; while the Bertelsmann Foundation will contribute the expertise of a think tank.

New Communication tools

I would also like to draw your attention to a number of new communication tools being launched today to inspire and to highlight what can be done.  This includes:

  • a brochure with success stories,
  • a video clip focusing on the business case for apprenticeships,
  • a new webpage which makes it easier to finding out more information on the Alliance and links to funding and engagement opportunities,
  • and not least a new on-line platform - where employers can publish their apprenticeship and traineeship opportunities, which will also act as a space to facilitate partnerships and networking.

These are all vital elements to raising the profile and appeal of apprenticeships.

The apprentices – our future

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, I want to offer an especially warm welcome to the apprentices who join us here today from new members of the Alliance.

You are evidence of vocational education and training in action, and of why apprenticeships should be a first choice for quality work experience and recognised qualifications. I look forward to hearing your experiences and expectations and I wish you success in your future career.

Thank you.