The age of training regulations as an indicator for the need for modernisation of recognised training occupations?

Occupational qualifications are subject to constant change and need to be adjusted to altered circumstances. But which factors trigger the update of training regulations? And what role is played by aspects such as the age of the regulations in question?

Recognised training occupations act as a guarantee that qualified skilled workers will develop a professional capacity and in consequence employability skills in training.

Getting on in years

Objects of everyday life and persons are characterised by their age in differing contexts. The maturity of a wine is, for example, a sign of quality. By way of contrast, professional sports people are no longer deemed to be capable of a sufficient level of performance once they have reached a certain seniority. But what is the significance of age for training regulations? The tasks and processes of skilled workers are subject to changing general conditions in varying degrees. This may exert an influence on the contents of vocational education and training programmes. Contents grow old and will become obsolete at some point. This may lead us to assume that there is a uniform “critical” age and a resultant need for revision.

However, a remarkably broad range is revealed if attention is directed towards the “life expectancy” of training regulations. We will, for example, find training occupations such as motor vehicle body and vehicle construction mechanic, which was last modernised in 2014 only eight years after a previous update. At this point, it had been adapted four times over a period of twenty years. There are also training occupations that have existed in unchanged form for decades. Glass apparatus maker, for instance, has its origins in various predecessor occupations dating back to the late 1930s and underwent its sole regulatory process so far in 1983.

Calculations of the life expectancy of all 327 currently valid dual training occupations show that their arithmetic mean age is around 17 years. The median is 16, indicating that this precise average value is robust against outliers. Just over two thirds of training occupations exhibit an age range of between five and 30 years. The remaining proportion of just under a third endures for more than 30 years. A distinction can thus be drawn between very long-lived and short-lived training occupations. Nonetheless, age alone cannot be statistically confirmed as a factor of direct significance.

Progressive digitalisation has reinforced the conjecture that occupations are experiencing accelerated change. However, if we compare the average lifetime of training occupations before and after the general dissemination and availability of computers, then no cogent evidence for such a supposition can be found. The situation therefore seems to be more eclectic than initially portrayed. The set of issues surrounding the age of training occupations clearly requires differentiated and more detailed consideration. Further possible factors influencing modernisation must be identified.

Learning from the past for the future

Task requirements for qualified workers and ensuing skills, knowledge and competencies are dependent on various factors. The identification and contextualisation of these requirements, skills, knowledge and competencies form the basis for regulatory-related early recognition in qualifications research, the aim being to take due account both of the societal education remit of VET and of the needs of trade and industry. The timely determination of emerging changes is the only means by which the contents of training regulations can be rapidly adjusted. But not all changes lead to a need for modernisation in regulatory terms. Although data on sector- or region-specific developments, for example, are available and suitable to anticipate changes at occupational level (cf. Vitols 2003; Klier et al. 2021; Spöttl et al. 2016), it does not permit any inference regarding the factors which prompt modernisation.

A more in-depth consideration extending beyond general shifts such as digitalisation or decarbonisation is required for this purpose. The focus also needs to be directed much more towards the analysis of factors that exert an effect at the occupational level and instigate adjustments there – for instance via changes to materials, production and business processes or methods. In order to shape regulatory policy in a proactive manner, it is necessary to bear a framework of different factors in mind. These relate to one another at various levels, and their impact and regulatory relevance must be investigated. A consideration of earlier regulatory procedures may assist with determining starting points for an indicators-based early recognition system for regulatory needs.

The development of such indicators is the objective of the BIBB research project "Systematic observation of the change in competency requirements for the structuring of initial and advanced training occupations", which is being conducted between January 2022 and December 2024. The aims are to draw on findings from historical occupational field research (cf. Howe 2018), to gain greater foresight by looking back at the past, and to use this retrospective view as prospective guidance.

Methodological approach towards the identification of factors determining modernisation needs

Various reciprocal stages are being completed and different methods are being applied in order to ascertain possible indicators. The point of departure is an analysis of project applications for revision procedures submitted to the Federal Government/Federal States Coordination Committee (KoA). These have formed the basis for the modernisation of training regulations. For the analysis, applications enacted in 2010 or later were considered. One of the tasks of the KoA is to "make arrangements regarding which training regulations and skeleton curricular should be prepared when a training occupation is updated".

As well as containing general information, benchmarks and data relating to the time sequence of a modernisation process, these applications also include explicit justifications as to why a recognised training occupation should be updated or developed. Although KoA applications have their foundation in a consensus reached between the social partners, they do not provide a detailed reflection of the preceding interest-led discussions. On the other hand, these applications are suitable for the analysis because of the differentiated way in which their rationale is presented in terms of content and by dint of their availability and standardised structure.

A total of 135 such applications served as the data basis. Documents were evaluated via a qualitative content analysis in accordance with Mayring (1991; 2015) and using the MAXQDA software. Codes relevant to the decision-making process were extracted from the texts by means of a circular process of categories deductively anticipated on the basis of literature and also via categories drawn up inductively from the analysis material. This permitted the development of a coding scheme which reflects the reasons for the modernisation of training occupations since 2010.

Rationales in KoA project applications

A total of twelve superordinate justification categories (“supra codes”) can be identified within the scope of the analysis of the KoA project applications. Examples include “Attractiveness of occupations”, “Current validity of training regulations”, “Technological change” and “Change of skills and qualifications”. However, “Formal general conditions” and “Educational policy challenges” also constitute relevant supra codes. Most of these codes can be further differentiated into sub-codes (cf. Figure).

Further differentiation of the supra codes into various sub-codes produces a complex scheme consisting of nearly 50 separate codes. Even though the sub-codes allocated to the same supra code are initially closely interlinked, they may also relate to one another in a manner which is irrespective of alignment. Our intention is to explain these connections and relations by using the sub-code of age as an example. This sub-code is listed in a justification structure in the documents investigated together with various other (sub)-codes.

To begin with, "Current validity of training regulations" is a supra code which bears a close relation to "Age". Such a relation is, however, obvious since "Current validity of training regulations" is the relevant supra code and the stating of age thus represents a further specification. In the coding, current validity is characterised by the designation of age information of regulations together with indications of modernisation needs.

References pointing to old or obsolete VET can also be frequently found within the context of the code "Technological change". "Technical" and "technological2 act as signalling words in this regard. References often correlate with "technological developments" which are described as being "dynamic", "progressive", "new" or "rapid22. More concrete statements regarding technological changes, especially of a more specific nature, were incorporated in sub-codes within the code – such as "Digitalisation" and "Changes of materials and methods".

A further sub-code making a frequent appearance within the context of age is "Task-related and work organisational change". The change thus described relates mainly to company tasks and to work organisation and is denoted by signalling words such as "tasks", "activities" or "organisation".

Sub-codes linked to age can thus be discovered. In overall terms, however, references tend to occur in connection with supra codes. Age is therefore more likely to arise within the context of general topics which are reflected in supra codes.

Although each code initially forms a possible indicator for a modernisation need in its own right, their significance may also come to light if they are integrated into reciprocal justification contexts. As the example of age shows, its significance as a single factor is limited. However, this significance may grow if it is related to another code.

According to the status of the analyses conducted thus far, the assumption may be made that codes are mutually dependent. Their regulatory relevance therefore might vary in accordance with justification structure. In order to create a basis for the formation of hypotheses, each code must initially be investigated with regard to its significance and then be specified in respect of content. This expressly applies to every individual code in itself, but also relates to inductive code relations, i.e. the code relationships to be identified from the material. Once the hypotheses have been formulated and validated, the next major challenge of the research project will be their operationalisation.

What happens next?

At the outset of the project, analysis of the KoA project applications provided a means of drafting the structure of justification factors for modernisation procedures. The consideration of the code “Age”, which has been specifically conducted here as an example, reveals the potential of this analysis for the formation of hypotheses and for such an investigation to act as an interim stage in the creation of indicators. On the basis of initial analyses, we may conclude that, as a justification, a code or sub-code does not necessarily have any regulatory relevance in and of itself. This would mean it can also not be used as an indicator for updating requirements. Instead, the emphasis must initially be placed on formulating further code relations in order to be able to estimate the indicator potential of a code not significant in its own right.

If we assume that occupations constitute constructions which are embedded into a socio-economic system (cf. Howe 2018), then the next stage of the investigation will allow the identified reasons for modernisation to be allocated to differently aligned levels – content, action and structural. Whereas the supra code "Intersection of training occupations" may be matched to a structural level, the codes "Operational and structural change in companies" or "Change of skills and qualifications" should be located at the action level, in the area of tasks or company processes. This suggests the hypothesis that the relation of the codes between themselves is not the only significant factor.

The levels at which these reciprocal relationships take place is a further important aspect. Once again, the code "Age" makes this clear. In this case, it would be possible to generate the hypothesis that age, at the structural level, does not in itself instigate an updating requirement. But age plays a role when the professional competencies of a training occupation become obsolete or need to be replaced or abolished – for example if the content level is also of relevance in addition to the structural level.

These reciprocal relationships are the key element which turns reasons for modernisation into specific adaptation needs. If the structural level enters into a relationship with the content or action level – in other words if age is also mapped at these relational levels – then this may lead to a need for adaptation. This may be highlighted by using the updating of the training occupation of organ maker of 16 August 2017 as an example. This occupation dated from 1984 and was thus obsolete at the structural level. However, this obsolescence was not the sole crucial factor for modernisation. In fact, the introduction of new digital production processes at the action level was the decisive step towards a specific updating need.

Over the further course of the project, the focus will be on identifying such relations existing between the codes and possible reciprocal effects beyond the levels, on making these measurable where possible, and on conducting an investigation into their significance as potential indicators for an early recognition system.

Source: (website of the German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training, BIBB), revised by iMOVE, January 2023