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11 Aug 2020
Fabian Jacobs

Upgrading Informal Apprenticeship Systems

This NORRAG Highlights is contributed by Fabian Jacobs, policy advisor on TVET at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. The author discusses how TVET can be rendered relevant and accessible for target groups from the informal economy. One possible option to develop skills and employability of informal workers is to upgrade and enhance the quality of existing informal apprenticeships.

The present contribution provides an introduction on apprenticeship systems in the informal economy and gives a brief overview of instruments and tools to upgrade informal apprenticeships.

Globally, 2 billion people are informally employed, representing more than 60 percent of total employment. In developing and emerging economies, the share is in some cases even over 90 percent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Here the informal economy often provides the only opportunity for young people to find employment, earn a livelihood and gain professional experience. As a consequence, informal workers represent an important target group for development cooperation in the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector.

As Léna Krichewsky mentioned in her article on the NORRAG blog, the perspective on the informal economy in international TVET cooperation has changed dramatically amongst international donors in recent decades. Donor organisations increasingly pay attention to the relevance of informally employed workers for development interventions in the field of TVET. Bilateral development agencies like the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) as well as multilateral organisations like the ILO address the informal economy in their TVET policies as well as in their projects and programmes on the ground. But how can TVET be rendered relevant and accessible for target groups from the informal economy?

Given the various forms of informal employment and the diverging country-specific contexts, there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. Nevertheless, approaches which have proven to make a difference exist. One possible option to develop skills and increase employability of informal workers is to upgrade existing informal apprenticeships.

Informal apprenticeships are culturally embedded and socially accepted training systems which exist in many developing and emerging economies with large informal sectors. They enable the transmission of job-related competencies from experienced master craftsperson to young people. Apprentices acquire relevant skills and knowledge on the job in small and micro enterprises of the informal sector.

Contrary to formal vocational training, informal apprenticeships are commonly based on verbal agreements between master craftsperson and apprentice rather than on formal contracts. Social norms determine the regulatory framework of the apprenticeship as well as rights and obligations of the parties involved. The costs of training are usually borne jointly by the apprentice and the training enterprise. The apprentice contributes with its labour force and sometimes pays a training fee, while the master craftsperson often pays a monthly allowance and invests time and effort in training.

There are a number of reasons why improving informal apprenticeships may be a smart policy solution in many cases. First and foremost, informal apprenticeships are a common way of skills development in many countries and in some cases attract far more young people than the formal TVET system. For policy makers it may be more feasible and effective to work with existing apprenticeship models which are accepted amongst enterprises and society, rather than trying to replace a functioning training delivery system. Furthermore, apprenticeships efficiently increase youths’ employability since the training takes place on the job and contents are therefore geared towards the actual requirements of small and medium sized enterprises. Considering the economic performance of the informal sector, upgrading informal apprenticeships can improve human capital and productivity and therefore contribute to enabling a formalisation of informal enterprises in the long run.

As informal apprenticeships usually take place solely at the workplace, there is usually no involvement with formal TVET institutions and vocational schools. Hence, apprentices do not have any access to theoretical education, and learning contents at the enterprise level do not follow any official standards. Furthermore, access to modern technology is often limited due to the constrained resources of small informal enterprises. Additionally, informal apprenticeships do not always follow decent work standards and are not necessarily equally accessible for women.

To enhance the quality of informal apprenticeships, these challenges can be addressed for example through building linkages to vocational schools and institutions of the formal TVET system. Thereby, young people gain access to standardized theoretical knowledge and technical know-how. Furthermore, formal educational attainments make competencies visible for potential employers and also enable access to further formal education for trainees. Additionally, through promoting equal access to apprenticeships, young women’s economic opportunities can be improved.

Finally, to learn more about upgrading informal apprenticeship systems and other approaches to TVET in the informal economy, visit the ‘Toolkit Learning and working in the informal economy’ at The toolkit provides a comprehensive overview on TVET in the context of informal employment. Practice-proven approaches to vocational training in the informal economy are presented and illustrated with project examples. If you have any questions, suggestions or criticism, feel free to contact the Toolkit editorial team at


About the Author: Fabian Jacobs works as policy advisor on TVET at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (giz) GmbH. He contributed as author and editor to the ‘Toolkit learning and working in the informal economy’.

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