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Swiss Leading House VPET-ECON

Three Questions to Leading House Alumnus Dr. Jens Mohrenweiser

Question No. 1: What was your dissertation subject?

My PhD thesis analysed why firms train apprentices. It basically investigated two motives: the investment and substitution motive. The investment motive means that firms heavily invest in apprenticeship training. They typically keep their apprentices afterwards and offer them career and development opportunities. On the contrary, the substitution motive means that firms substitute low-skilled employees with apprentices who strongly contribute to productivity during apprenticeship. These firms balance training and working during apprenticeship and firms do not rely on keeping their apprenticeship graduates. Both motives are bound to specific occupations, i.e. there are “investment-motive-occupations” and “substitution-motive-occupations”.

My thesis further shows that apprentices who leave the training firm after apprenticeship typically get a wage penalty in investment motive occupations while such a stigma effect is not visible in substitution motive occupations.

Finally, my thesis showed that - unlike classical human capital theory may predict - non-training firms in Germany do not use a systematic poaching strategy to hire apprenticeship graduates.


Question No. 2: What is the main conclusion of your research for practice and/or for future Research?

I think my PhD thesis gives some important insights for countries that want to adopt an apprenticeship training system. In these countries, the threat of poaching is usually one of the main reasons why firms shy away from apprenticeship training. My PhD thesis has shown that poaching is not relevant for the substitution training motive, when firms already get their return during training via the contribution of apprentices to productivity. This is, for instance, quite relevant in the UK at the moment, where the government introduced an apprenticeship levy in April 2017 to boost apprenticeships. Let’s take a closer look at the hospitality sector in which the substitution motive predominates in traditional apprenticeship countries. Currently, low-skilled workers remain in a job for 4-6 months which limits the possibility of initial training in the sector and resulted in a call for skill shortage. Apprenticeships can address the skill shortage because they last for around one year in the hospitality sector. Apprenticeships give firms and apprentices a clear timeframe that allows firms to invest more in training for apprentices than currently for low skilled workers while getting the returns in form of higher productivity already during training. I believe the substitution training motive might be a much more powerful motive to convince firms to participate in apprenticeships. Reasonably designed, apprenticeships can be a win-win-win situation for firms, apprentices and the state.

Moreover, my PhD thesis has shown that poaching is not a huge problem in the investment motive either because leaving the training firm immediately after training can result in a lower wage than staying for some time. I showed in a paper of my PostDoc phase that this is due to the fact that apprenticeship certificates entail only grades about hard skills but not about soft skills. The information advantage about soft-skills gives training firms the possibility to counter outside offers for brilliant apprentices but they might think twice to do this for less good ones. Hence, apprentices leaving the training firm immediately after training in investment occupations are less likely to be seen as high performers.


Question No. 3: If you could choose one research finding in the field of education economics that changed the way you look at things, what would it be?

It not always matters what you can do, but what you believe you can do and what others believe you can do. These effects are remarkable strong for education attainment and labour market outcomes after education.


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Dr. Jens Mohrenweiser