Politics & Society

Dual Vocational Training

A Key Education Model to Solve the Unemployment Paradox in Spain

“Instead of millions of people looking for jobs, millions of jobs are looking for people in Europe.” This statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her 2023 State of the Union address exemplifies the employment bonanza Europe is experiencing today. Paradoxically, a few months before, the president herself labelled as unacceptable Europe’s youth unemployment rate: 14%. “This cannot be”, she stated at the 15th Congress of the European Trade Union Confederation in May 2023.

These two statements represent a clear illustration of Europe’s current labor market situation: labor shortages in specific industries or regions coexisting with high levels of unemployment, particularly among certain segments of the population such as the young. This binomial has often been referred to as the unemployment paradox.

Some figures will help illustrate this paradox: 76% of smalland medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe claim they are facing labor shortages and two-thirds of European companies cannot find IT specialists they need. The European battery industry will need 800,000 additional skilled workers just in the next two years. The solar industry will require 1 million additional jobs for skilled workers by 2030, twice as many as today. And yet, 14% of the European youth, almost three million under the age of 25, cannot find a job. Certainly, this is a complex and puzzling situation.

One of the EU countries that best exemplifies this paradox is Spain, a country that is breaking job market records while topping the EU’s youth unemployment rate of 27.9%, almost twice as high as the EU average of 14%, as shown in table 1 below.

There are several factors that account for this excessively high unemployment rate in Spain, namely:

  1. The economic downturn initiated in 2008 hit Spain particularly hard. It became one of the countries experiencing one of the most severe recessions in Europe, leading to a contraction in economic activity and hitting all segments of the population, especially the young. The youth unemployment rate skyrocketed to almost 57% in 2013.
  2. The structure of the Spanish labor market has been characterized by temporary work and low wages. This has led to increased job instability, precarity, lack of career advancement and brain drain. This situation has particularly hit, once again, the young.
  3. Spain’s education system has often faced criticism for not aligning effectively with the needs of the labor market, creating a mismatch in skills and exacerbating unemployment among the young.

The Spanish education model presents certain features that can help explain the mismatch between education and the labor market. On the one hand, there is a high level of overqualification, employed people with higher education for the occupation they perform. There is also a high number of workers without accredited professional qualifications and, at the same time, there is a remarkable shortage of people with intermediate qualifications and skills obtainable through vocational training, especially in technological and industrial sectors.

This qualification mismatch is best exemplified in figure 2 below. The upper- and lower-skilled represent the majority of the working population in Spain, more than 75%, whereas the population with technical skills accounts only for 23.2%. At the same time, forecasts indicate that 65% of the jobs in Spain to be created by 2030 will require intermediate skills whereas only 35% will need higher/tertiary education, as highlighted by the European Center for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP). This is a clear mismatch between the markets’ needs and the Spanish education system. As shown in the figure below, the Spanish situation differs from that of the EU-27, which has a higher number of people with intermediate technical education and a lower under-skilled and over-skilled population.

This pattern has certainly led to an anomalous situation in Spain. Those with higher education cannot find the jobs for which they are suited and have no choice but to take jobs requiring intermediate skills. In turn, intermediateskilled workers see how their jobs are taken by those with higher education and, therefore, have no choice but to take low skilled jobs. As a result, those with unaccredited qualifications are pushed out of the job market. At the same time, there are thousands of unfilled technical jobs, mainly those requiring intermediate education, due to a lack of qualified personnel. The Spanish Quarterly Labor Cost Survey put a figure to this fact: 145,053 vacant posts in Spain at the end of 2022 in a wide range of sectors, from construction to industry to technology, to name a few. These tensions between the education system and labor market are a clear example of the mismatch between supply and demand in Spain.


The education reforms developed over the past years in Spain have placed special emphasis on vocational training as a way to modernize and adapt the system to current socioeconomic needs. As repeatedly stated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education indicators: countries with solid vocational training systems are better equipped to combat youth unemployment.

Over the past decade, legislative efforts have been focused on adopting a solid framework aimed at responding to the skills needs of the labor market and reducing youth unemployment. The approval of the Spanish 2022 Organic Law for the Organization and Integration of Vocational Education and Training (VET) culminates a long process of making vocational education and training a lever of change for economic growth in the country. These changes have led to a progressive increase in vocational training provision especially for those sectors with a higher demand for it. There has been an increase in the percentage of students choosing vocational education and training as their education pathway. Some figures help illustrate this point.

The number of VET students has grown exponentially over the past years, by a yearly average of 6.5% and by more than 45% over the past decade, reaching the 1-million mark in 2021-

  1. Forecasts indicate that, over the next few years, there will be more VET students than university students in Spain.

While it is true that a 27.9% youth unemployment rate is an unacceptable figure for any well-functioning society, we should not lose sight of the wider picture: it is the lowest rate in more than a decade, as shown in figure 4 below. Because of the economic recession, the Spanish youth unemployment rate has been unbearably high over the past decade, skyrocketing to 56.92% in 2013 but with one positive aspect: it has been continuously declining since then.

One particular element included in the VET reforms of the past years has been the incorporation of the Dual VET system, that is the education and training model that combines workplace learning with classroom-based instruction. Incorporated into Spanish legislation in 2012 for the first time, it was fully deployed in the 2022 Organic Law for the Organization and Integration of Vocational Education and Training. Dual VET has become a core element that can help to combat the unemployment paradox.


  1. It constitutes a quality training itinerary in which students develop technical skills in real professional contexts. It combines qualification with professionalization, providing a solid experience for students.
  2. It strengthens the intrinsic motivation and professional selfesteem of students and enhances transversal competencies, including the much-needed soft skills, which are better acquired in a real work environment than in a classroom. All data indicate that this motivation decreases school dropout rates.
  3. It creates synergies among the different stakeholders, students, vocational schools and companies, as it strengthens a culture of collaboration among them. Training goes beyond the school as companies acquire a training role in close collaboration with vocational schools.

Dual VET has been prioritized in the current Spanish education reforms on Vocational Training. These reforms, which are crystallized in the Spanish 2022 Organic Law, have been aimed at strengthening collaboration between the education sector and industry, encouraging the participation of companies in training programs and enhancing the employability of students by providing them with practical skills aligned with industry needs.

Aware of the benefits of matching Spanish education with the country’s socioeconomic needs, Fundación Bertelsmann has been working since 2014 to promote Dual VET as a quality educational option for the future. Together with the Spanish Confederation of Employers’ Association (CEOE), the Spanish Chamber of Commerce and the Princess of Girona Foundation, Fundación Bertelsmann created in 2015 the Alianza para la FP Dual (Alliance for Dual VET) a collaborative network of stakeholders involved in Dual VET, companies, schools, chambers of commerce, etc., committed to improving the employability of young people through quality dual training.

Since then, Fundación Bertelsmann has provided advice to educational centers and companies wishing to develop their Dual VET projects, promoted the creation of working groups to exchange ideas and best practices, and developed innovative projects and practical tools aimed at making Dual VET an attractive educational option for youngsters.

The work developed by Fundación Bertelsmann and other stakeholders has certainly contributed to positive results. The number of Dual VET students has been steadily increasing each year, going from 20,357 during the 2016-2017 school year to 45,613 during the 2021-2022 school year, more than double in just five years. This is certainly a progressive increase over time. We should look, however, at the broader picture: Dual VET students only account for 4.4% of the total number of VET students in 2023, certainly a low figure if compared to other European countries such as Germany, with 60% of VET students opting for the Dual option and with a youth unemployment rate as low as 6%, as seen in figure 1 above.

Slowly but surely, Spain is on the right track to reducing the youth unemployment rate through Dual VET. The data available leave no room for doubt:

  • 57% of Dual VET students were already employed one year after completing their studies, as opposed to 42% of traditional VET students.
  • 76% of Dual VET students had a full-time, stable job one year after completing their studies, as opposed to 63% of traditional VET students.
  • In sectors such as electricity, electronics, mechanics or STEM, among many others, salaries of those having completed Dual VET are higher than those of traditional VET students.

The incorporation of Dual VET into the current education reforms in Spain is already proving to be an effective and useful mechanism for combatting the imbalance between supply and demand and to reduce the youth unemployment rate. The social and economic transformations of today are leading to the emergence of new and more technical jobs. The urgent need for technical skills has accelerated over the past years. The rapid advance of technology, automation and artificial intelligence is already leading to a high demand for tech-related skills.

Dual VET can certainly help to solve the unemployment paradox for various reasons: companies are directly involved in the training process, ensuring that the skills taught are aligned with industry needs; it fosters a smooth transition into the workforce as students graduate with real work experience; and, if properly designed, it represents a system adaptable to changes in industry needs. Prioritizing Dual VET requires a joint, consensus-based effort from various stakeholders, governments, schools, companies, etc., due to its farreaching benefits for all. Young generations, with hopes and expectations, see their personal and professional aspirations fulfilled as they obtain real on-the-job experience. Industry benefits by easily finding needed skills in the population. And society as a whole gains from reduced unemployment, which leads to more economic stability and social cohesion. Dual VET is, in sum, the necessary lever to solve Spain’s unemployment paradox.


Originally published
in System Updates: Resetting the Future of Work

Dr. Vicent Climent-Ferrando