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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Work experience for apprentices with mental health problems

by Anne Unfried
Language: EN
Document available also in: NL

Undoubtedly the internationalisation of labour markets more and more requires intercultural competences and foreign language skills. And as one of the most important learning environments for the enhancement of cross-cultural skills is working in a foreign country, - and precisely because of the current inclusion debate - it is indispensable for trainees of facilities for vocational rehabilitation to be able to make use of such learning opportunities.

But while it has always been possible for Euro-BBW apprentices to realize an internship in another country if they wish to do so, most of our students lack the self-confidence and experience to handle such a stay on their own. All of our apprentices show an (impending) mental disorder and/or physical disability and need a degree of safety and support on the spot. Uncertainty and new, stressful situations without professional guidance easily lead to a deterioration of mental health, sometimes making it necessary to terminate the internship altogether.

This situation gave additional impetus to our first Erasmus+ application in 2008. Since then we have successfully been sending groups of six or seven apprentices each year to Oulu/Finland for two-week internships, always accompanied by three staff members with different professions. All projects aimed at an improvement of intercultural competences, the acquaintance with and awareness of the host culture and labour market of another European country, the enhancement of learning motivation and the improvement of English language skills. They were supposed to strengthen open-mindedness concerning other cultures and the ability to take the broader view. But there are targets with regard to disabilities, too: to overcome anxiety, to cope with stressful circumstances and to build up more self-confidence.


In order to reach these objectives, we extensively prepared our apprentices: For intercultural matters, we asked a representative of the “Finnland-Institut” in Berlin to give a seminar on Finnish culture and language. For the duration of several weeks to months, additional English teachers took over linguistic preparation measures, as many apprentices have a rather rudimentary command of the English language (which is the working language for our students in Finland) despite having learnt the language at school. Much information was given on the Erasmus+ programme, travel logistics, and the intended schedule of their stay abroad, enhanced by a workshop on the European CV.

A packing list was distributed beforehand, and educators in our dormitories were asked to help where needed. This was a result of our experience made during earlier flows when some participants had underestimated the cold climate in Finland, or did not have enough money for clothes but felt ashamed to ask for financial help.

As travelling from Bitburg/Germany, a rural area without many links to public transportation, meant a huge amount of stress for our participants, we organized a bus transport to and from the airport. This measure, though costly, proved to be a relief for all participants. The groups each travelled together, thus the accompanying staff was able to help with orientation at the airport. If necessary, they took with them an additional piece of luggage for work clothing.

We are in many ways lucky to have Luovi College in Oulu for a partner. The college has extensive experience both in training young people with disabilities as well as in European networking. Luovi does not only offer work experience to those students who can't find a placement in companies, they are also able to offer accommodation, recreation and meals directly on the college grounds. Luovi also excels at providing events in which our students were able to take part and meet Finnish students – for example Winter Olympics, outdoor lunches and joint visits to sights near the arctic circle.


Luovi College organized internships for our apprentices in external companies in Oulu or at the College itself, and learning targets were of course agreed upon beforehand.

Wherever possible, students have a Finnish trainee at their side who will act as their mentor. Thus our students were able to compare their knowledge with others, exchange views on vocational training in both countries and to experience work in a different country and culture. The fact that Finnish students also took part in many leisure time activities helped a lot in gaining an impression of the host culture and in improving English language skills. Friendships were forged, all internships were successfully realized, and all participants felt personally enriched by their stay.


The presence of trusted accompanying staff, though, is absolutely necessary for the apprentices of the Euro-BBW, in order to avoid crisis situations and premature terminations of the internships. Many of our apprentices haven’t visited a foreign country on their own before and need support with travel logistics.

Much attention is given to the composition of the accompanying staff team. While it is necessary for all staff members to have good knowledge of mental health disorders and what they mean to a young person learning a job, we send at least one person who is an expert in mental health crisis prevention and suitable handling of a worst case scenario.
Ideally there should also be one person who knows the vicinity and can direct the group to bus stations, recommendable sights, hospitals and other points of interest, as this gives further security to trainees.
A third person could come from a totally different field but with valuable knowledge, for example concerning billing questions, the Erasmus+ programme or with excellent English (or Finnish) language skills. What’s also important is the fact that the staff members should be adapted to the trainee group - if a trainer or teacher is sent, he or she should be from one of the fields the trainees are studying, and gender should be reflected - if there are only male trainees in the group, one shouldn’t send an all-female staff group with them.
These criteria not only helped in making a positive, unforgettable experience for our young people but had the added value of furthering communication between staff members from different departments.

During their stay, accompanying staff at the beginning closely attended to the apprentices, daily visited them at their work places and gave support concerning orientation in a foreign city. Gradually our staff members reduced the amount of guidance in order to help the development of independence, but were always available in case of problems, via mobile and also waiting at a jointly determined meeting point (usually the Luovi cafeteria which was in easy reach for most group members).
While during the first few days apprentices still felt insecure and relied heavily on staff visits at their work place, many apprentices did not need any support at all during the second week.

As it is possible to use a kitchen in the dormitory, our groups were able to cook and eat together at the weekends and in the evenings, getting to know each other better, creating a friendly spirit and a safe place for all.


All apprentices came home with new knowledge about and a new view of Finnish culture. While most students in the beginning were interested but not overly enthusiastic about travelling to Finland, would have preferred a bustling big city or a warmer climate, many now said they considered coming back at least for a holiday in later years. Many would have liked to stay longer, even if on their own, or expressed a wish to come back for a longer period of work experience after finishing their training. Most participants also stated a marked improvement of their English language skills.

Trainers back home in Bitburg noted an improvement of social competences, mainly self-reliability and motivation. Also improved was the motivation of students to engage with foreign visitors in the Euro-BBW. Ideas for training projects have been collected and are being planned.

In the long run the Euro-BBW expects apprentices to have competitive advantages on the labour market, compared to other applicants, due to their international work experience.



The European Vocational Training Centre (Europäisches Berufsbildungswerk) Bitburg is an international institution for the vocational rehabilitation, according to §51 of the German Code of Social Law IX. Young people who have a disability - which is of a nature or gravity that makes special advancement necessary in order to be able to successfully finish a vocational training – have a legal right to claim a vocational measure in a “Berufsbildungswerk”. The promoting organization of the Euro-BBW is the German Red Cross Rhineland-Palatinate.

The Euro-BBW offers vocational orientation and training for ca. 250 young adults mainly with mental health issues, from Germany and the neighbouring countries like Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Netherlands. Its aim is - and has been since its foundation in 1998 - to prepare young people for an international labour market. To facilitate this, we provide language training and other European content as part of our curriculum.

According to Social Law, young persons with disabilities who are trained in a vocational training centre or another external education centre should be encouraged to complete certain elements of their training in an enterprise or public-sector entity. At the Euro-BBW we do this by offering interlinked training stages in companies as well as internships in other countries. This approach ensures that during phases at a company, trainees remain rehabilitation patients of our institution. We in turn remain responsible for providing vocational education and training as a form of vocational training assistance and are under obligation to support employers in training and supervising our trainees.

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