VET For Inclusion And Identity Development: The Cometa Approach With Young Migrants

Cometa, located in Como, Italy, provides services to minors and young adults and is serving an increasing number of migrants. These young migrants are vulnerable due to their marginalization in areas such as language, cultural differences, and class status, and they face potential risks in not being able to find meaningful employment. This research proposal reports on findings from a qualitative study whose main objective was to examine students’ (who are migrants) and staff members’ growth and development through their involvement in a one-year long training course entitled the “Minimaster”. The Minimaster’s success relies on (1) a mix of training on professional subjects, e.g., enology, labour law, and Italian and English language literacy; (2) socio-emotional learning, e.g., communication skills, relationship building with local entrepreneurs; and (3) a combination of didactic methodology, e.g., strong work-based approach, as well as daily coaching and mentoring.
(Co-authors: Paolo Nardi and Terry L. Koenig, University of Kansas, for the ECER Conference 2019)

1          THE CONTEXT

Migration is not a new phenomenon, however its increase, worldwide, in the last years is dramatic. In 2017, more than 258 million people (3.4% of global population) experienced migration, mainly toward the more developed countries, where their presence raised from 10% to 14% (UNESCO, 2018). Among them, approximately 20 million are refugees and most of them are minors (UNHCR). The impact of refugees, in Europe, has been huge: between 2013 and 2016 their number has been increasing exponentially (Bertelmann, 2016b).

Of all the migrants that have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Italy’s shores in the last few years, a large number are unaccompanied minors and young adults (Demurtas, Vitiello, Accorinti, Skoda & Perillo, 2017). The percentage of refugees has approximately raised to 2.8 every 1000 inhabitants (in Europe: 1.3); among them, minors (0-19 y.o.) were 2.4% in 1990 and 5.6% in 2017 (UNESCO, 2018).

Notwithstanding the debates on media, the real challenge is not their increase rather their integration, reducing the risk of social exclusion and segregation: as emerged in several studies, “The faster refugees move into the labour market, the faster their integration will be. Successful integration is associated with early contact with the labour market” (Bertelsmann 2016a). At the same time, migrants and refugees usually present poor performances in the labour market, “which can be only partially attributed to the lack of qualification or skills” (OECD, 2015). Many barriers can be mentioned: basic and technical literacy of the host country, poor knowledge of the local job culture, habits and rules, lack of job experiences and adequate training, no link to recruitment networks, and, unfortunately, still racism, stereotypes, legal uncertainty, slow bureaucracy, often leading to dropout and psychological crisis (Bertelsmann, 2016b; OECD, 2015; UNESCO, 2018).

The existence of these problems outlines the relevance not just of finding a job, rather to have a specific vocational training providing them not only technicalities but also basics on language, culture and, even more, support for legal issues, job intermediation and, last but not least, human relations (Bertelsmann, 2016a). TVET system can offer the best way to prepare people not just for a job but for a career and, as a consequence, social inclusion. However, the risk of dropout from VET courses for migrants is significantly high: CEDEFOP data show that dropout migrants in Europe (18-24 y.o.) is approximately 30%, in some countries even much higher, including Portugal (37%), Italy and Spain (45%) and Greece (50%). UNESCO (2018) identifies some factors affecting dropout: age, selection of class and social and economic background.

It is important to identify the conditions making VET provision for migrants more effective. Requested reforms include didactics, language, teachers’ skills and deeper personalization of training; a stronger connection with the job market to boost employability and encourage school-job transition. More concretely, several agencies stress the importance of:

  • a work-based approach, including internships or apprenticeships, making school-job transition smoother;
  • including in the training offer not only language and literacy, but also culture of the host country, in order to support migrants in better understanding social dynamics and to decrease the risk of social exclusion (Carrera 2006; OECD, 2016; Schuller et al., 2011);
  • a strong personalization of the training provision, based on age, gender, skills and social and cultural background: as outlined by the Deputy Director di CEDEFOP, Maria Brugia, “there is no quick and simple fix and no one-size-fits-all solution: support services for adult refugees need to be tailored to the specific characteristics, qualifications and needs of the different groups”. Interesting examples of “customized approach” come from Norway where a 2-year program for refugees let them develop “an individual career plan consisting of an aim – normally a type of job – and various schemes deemed relevant to achieve this” (Hagelund, 2005); or the UK “Life CV” program, aiming at discovering “new ways of knowing themselves and presenting themselves to potential employers” (Schultheiss et al., 2011).
  • including “non formal” activities, such as cultural events, sport activities, as well as counselling and psychological services.
  • a specific training for trainers, enabling them to develop a multicultural approach, useful to prevent intercultural conflicts or to identify and manage psychological problems. UNESCO (2018) outlined that only 16% of teachers in 34 educational systems got an adequate training, including a practical experience beside theory.


Cometa, located in Como, Italy, provides services to minors and young adults and is serving an increasing number of migrants. The relevance of this experience emerges not only from the positive results of placement of learners after completing their courses, but also for the original approach which is one of the objects of analysis developed by this research. Although there are many studies that examine the impact of vocational training on participants (Zimmerman et al., 2013), few have examined the identity development of unaccompanied migrants balanced with the expectations of a program like Cometa that encourages them to integrate into Italian society. Cometa has been supporting migrants and refugees since the very beginning of its activities for dropouts, although, the recent increase of the number of migrants has requested a significant investment in this specific program.

The research, still in progress, aims at outlining the main elements of the Cometa approach with migrants, in order to identify potential elements of transferability in other context: the description of the case study, presented in this paper, outlining the main elements of Cometa approach. The second part of the research is a qualitative study whose main objective was to examine students’ (who are migrants) and staff members’ growth and development through their involvement in a one-year long training course the “Minimaster”.

In the following sections, the case study will be presented as an introduction to the main elements characterizing the training provision. Those elements guided the qualitative study, whose preliminary results are described in the last section.

3          The Cometa approach: a case study

Cometa Formazione since 2009 has been developing special programs for migrants aiming at providing them with an effective training, a social support and a guided transition to job market. The collaboration with local institutions, social cooperatives dealing with migrants and companies, has always been crucial. This research outlines those factors which can be considered essential for the success of the program.

Cometa operates in Como, a town at the border between Italy and Switzerland. This condition makes Como an intermediate destination for many migrants whose final destination is usually Germany or, in some cases, the same Switzerland. However because of controls at the border and the international agreements (Dublin agreement), leaving Como is always impossible. According to the analysis of the Regional Agency “Eupolis Lombardia”, Como hosted almost 1.000 migrants in its Centres for Assistance; others live in the neighbourhood or close cities including Varese and Lecco, not to mention Milan and Bergamo. Since few years ago, Cometa has been supporting migrants, and in particular minors, coming from all these places. All of them face the same challenges:

  • no social support in a foreign context;
  • no or low knowledge of Italian language;
  • poor conditions of the family in their own country and need to support them from Italy;
  • barriers to enter the job market
  • social exclusion

More in details, migrants attending Cometa courses are mainly minors or young adults. Minors live in special communities managed by NGOs, funded, according to the Italian law, by the local Municipality. They get a temporary visa, although, in many cases, they ask for asylum because of their origin from unsafe countries (war conditions, persecutions based on religion or gender).

Young adults, who are often former minors now of age, loose the right to the assistance granted by the local Municipality; they cannot stay in the same communities they were hosted in. They have a very scares or no social support in Italy, sometimes neither in their home countries. The migrants supported by Cometa during the period 2017-2018 included more than 10 different nationalities, approximately 28 years old. Their journey, as emerged during the interviews, has been dramatic, with significant psychological impacts on them, which requires the intervention of specialists, in particular in the case of women.

All of them had a very low understanding of Italian language at the moment of their arrival to Italy; in particular in the case of minors, they are provided with some basics in Italian by the communities where they are hosted developing a good level of comprehension and speaking (43%); 37% show a medium level of comprehension, while 17% a very low level. Speaking remains more difficult task to grasp: still medium for 29%, scares for 25% of them. At the same time, English and French can be spoken, mainly as second language, while local dialects are the most frequent language they are fluent in.

Moving from these conditions, Cometa has been promoting different programs and training courses based on similar concepts: basic literacy and numeracy, training in one of the local economic sectors where job offers are significant, counselling and legal support, internship and, eventually, transition to job.

The experience developed in the last 10 years let Cometa to consolidate a specific structure of intervention played by key actors:

  1. One coordinator is in charge of supervising training projects and programs, supporting staff and, above all, meeting every beneficiary.
  2. Welcoming staff: two people (in collaboration with staff from the communities where migrants live) take care of the first welcome to migrants, interviewing them according to a specific protocol where their profiles emerge and a preliminary personalized project is designed. Their role does not end with welcoming migrants, but continues during their training giving them a personal support, including the evaluation of their training needs and scouting. They suggest beneficiaries not only specific formal training activities, but they also involve them in non formal moments, including voluntary jobs and social or cultural activities, in order to evaluate their intrinsic motivation and promote also a social integration in the local context.
  3. The Business-Education relationship manager, supported by the Cometa Career Service staff and by the coordinator, takes care of the needs (vacancies, skills) companies highlight. The role is crucial in addressing the training needs as emerged from the local job market; as a consequence, the manager can more easily match every beneficiary with a company for their internship, supporting both the learner and the company tutor in facing problems or challenges emerging during the job experience.
  4. A tutor is in charge of a class of migrants attending a specific program; this role is not just supportive during the training activities at school or on the job place during internship; their role include an educational and human support to recover beneficiaries’ self-efficacy. Due to its daily contact with each learner, the tutor offers a crucial support to the coordinator in the process of integration of each beneficiary, including legal and administrative procedures and, mainly, personal psychological advice. In some problematic cases, the tutor can suggest the migrant to meet an ethnopsychologist.
  5. Trainers are mainly professionals involved in the program for their direct contact with the real activities; trainers include also teachers from the TVET courses at Cometa, as well as teachers with competencies in teaching Italian to foreign people or experts in explaining main pillars of Italian culture.
  6. Career service is the Cometa department which supports the Business-Education relationship manager, thanks to the huge network of company partners developed in the almost 15 years of Cometa activity in TVET. On a regular basis, they monitor learners placement after the conclusion of the training, giving important feedback in terms of employment rate and, indirectly, of quality of the training.
  7. A dedicated project manager takes care not only of daily management of the programs, but also of the sustainability of the programs and communication.
  8. The involvement of the local network of stakeholders is of paramount importance for increasing the success of each intervention. First of all, the NGOs or social cooperative active in the first assistance and hospitality to migrants. They can share their knowledge and evaluation about the single beneficiary, as well as support the coordinator and the welcome staff in the identification of the training needs every learner shows. Companies are another crucial partner, as their needs become, concretely, the trigger for most of courses; their interest in filling not just vacancies but skill gaps in very specific sector make them to be involved in the same training at school, in offering internships and, in most cases, a contract.

It is possible to identify 4 main actions in the Cometa approach with migrants: 1) welcoming and scouting; 2) training; 3) tutoring; 4) transition to work.

3.1                   Action 1 – Welcoming, interview and scouting

This is the first step of the approach developed by Cometa. The coordinator and the welcoming staff will meet the migrants and will interview personally each of them, analysing their expectations and skills and creating a profile. Migrants arrive to Cometa because of different reasons: in 2018, 46% were sent to Cometa to attend a training course in Cometa by the NGOs where they were hosted; 30% arrived to Cometa because a personal contact invited them to go; finally, 24% knew about the possibility to attend an effective training in Cometa and decided to go without any previous introduction or reference.

During the first interview, a specific protocol to collect information is used; the protocol requires the following information:

  • personal data
  • previous training and education
  • previous job experience
  • competences in finding a job
  • personal legal situation
  • psychological profile
  • expectations

For every new learner, a dossier is activated including the form filled during the first interview and a collection of the legal documents. On the base of this preliminary analysis, the team identifies key competences and further basic training needs.

3.2                   Action 2 – Training

After an evaluation of their competences (and in most cases the level is quite low), a personalized training is proposed. Usually short courses to learn basics in Italian language and a preparatory training enabling learners to have the minimum level to attend a complete training in one of the sectors where Cometa operates: hospitality, wood and textile. Modules include Italian language, safety certifications, specific training in the selected sector and a short internship.

After this first training, it is possible to have a wider knowledge about the real motivation and skills of the migrants. For those who decide to keep attending a more specialized training, Cometa offers a 1,300 hours course in Food&Beverage (to become waiters or waitresses) or Housekeeping, called “MiniMasters”, where the involvement of companies is deeper, in terms of professionals involved as trainers and in terms of opportunities of a longer internship (960 hours) in the most relevant hotels and restaurants in Como and neighbourhood. For the others, there is the possibility to attend other short courses or to go to work.

3.3                   Action 3 – Tutoring

Tutoring is an essential function during training. The tutor plays a crucial role in defining the personalized pathway of each learner, including not only professional skills but also human development and soft skills. Few examples of that:

  • personal order: being on-time, active presence during lessons;
  • educational care: the tutor identifies potential threats or challenges the learner is facing and give support to face them;
  • personalization: every educational project has to be continuously re-adapted according to the reaction of the learner

Tutor’s activity includes many non-formal moments: dialogues, socio-emotional support, in order to help the learner in building a self-trust beyond professional goals.

3.4                   Action 4 – Matching with companies

The existing collaboration with a network of more than 700 companies, enables Cometa in getting a concrete support in placement. In the specific case of MiniMasters, the same companies operating in the hospitality sector proposed Cometa to train young people for some jobs where the vacancies could not be covered by Italian people. Companies become partners in the planning of the programs, funding them, contributing with their own professionals as trainers and offering internships and, in most cases, a contract. There is a direct and smooth connection between companies and Career service at Cometa, so that vacancies, training needs and any problem are immediately faced.


The Minimaster targets minors and young adults who are, usually, 17-22 years old NEETs. The program prepares future waiters/waitresses and housekeepers for the (mainly local) hospitality sector, including hotels/restaurants directly involved in the course offering both internships and work-based learning on their premises with their own professionals. In the last 10 years, the number of migrants attending the Minimaster has been increasing (approx. 80 students, 40% of the total). Placement results keeps being very positive. One year after obtaining their certificate, 60% of students have a job. The Minimaster’s success relies on (1) a mix of training on professional subjects, e.g., enology, labour law, and Italian and English language literacy; (2) socio-emotional learning, e.g., communication skills, relationship building with local entrepreneurs; and (3) a combination of didactic methodology, e.g., strong work-based approach, as well as daily coaching and mentoring.

5          NEXT STEPS

The overall purpose of the second part of the research is to explore growth and learning of students and staff associated with Cometa’s Minimaster course (MC). Research questions include:

  1. What have student/staff learned from their experiences with MC?
  2. What led the student/staff member to get involved in MC?
  3. What was life like before the student or staff member became involved in MC? And, how has life changed?
  4. What challenges have the student/staff member had to face and/or overcome as part of MC, e.g., holding onto cultural customs, identity and language in contrast with embracing new customs and language and social norms held by Italian society)?

This qualitative study explored students’ and staff members’ experiences of growth, development, and challenges in Cometa’s MC. This study is guided by a naturalistic paradigm based on assumptions that there are multiple realities or perspectives of a particular phenomena such as the young migrant’s journey to and integration in Italian society. The sample included students ages 17 through approximately 25 years old and staff members who have been voluntarily recruited from Cometa’s MC through verbal announcements in classes and other activities associated with Cometa. A consultant panel was also developed consisting of former students, current staff, and others to provide feedback on the study’s design. Not every student participants could fluently speak or read in English. An Italian to English interpreter was made available to these students and staff to interpret study materials.

In June 2019, semi-structured face-to-face interviews were conducted at the agency, Cometa or in the community of Como at a place agreed upon by the research participant. Students, staff, local stakeholders were involved; former students, already working in local companies were also included in the sample. More than 40 interviews were audiotaped and transcribed, and the researcher(s) assigned a pseudonym for each participant, deidentify all data, and load it into two work computers that both researcher(s) will use for this study. Both computers use data protection software so as to keep all data confidential.

The authors have already started analyzing the interview data based on the constant comparative method described by Lincoln and Guba (1985). The constant comparative method uses a recursive process of moving back and forth between the raw data and tentative codes until final coding categories are developed. This analytic process allows for inferences, tentative conclusions and preliminary perspectives to emerge from the data for the purpose of discovering how research participants understand or make meaning of their involvement, growth and development through Cometa’s MC. The software program Atlas.ti is used to assist in the management of all text data. Strategies were used to establish trustworthiness in this study’s findings including obtaining feedback from consultant panel members on introductory themes that emerged from data analyses of interview; and conducting member checks throughout the interview process. The use of these strategies helped to expand, add to, and refine the codes thereby increasing the credibility of findings (Lincoln, 1995; Lincoln and Guba, 1985).

Outcomes are expected to be available by the end of August 2019. They will focus on 4 areas. First, by exploring students’ and staff members’ growth and development associated with Cometa’s MC, we can develop a greater awareness of the challenges and strengths that students (who are migrants and represent a vulnerable group) and staff have in working in this program. For example, how do we help students who are without family develop nurturing systems (e.g., through peer support) so that they can develop a healthy identity rooted in their cultural and ethnic background? Second, because these students may have migrated alone and are without family, it becomes pivotal to strike a balance between supporting their healthy, cultural and ethnic identity development while at the same time assisting them in integrating into Italian society. Third, if we fail to nurture these students in developing an identity linked to their cultural and ethnic roots, they may experience greater stigmatization and have difficulties functioning in the larger Italian society. We may be introducing a permanent underclass in Italian society.

Both the evidences described in the case study and the emerging results from the qualitative analysis based on the interviews, Cometa and its MC are an example of the kind of program that provides a process not only for supporting migrants, but can also better prepare teachers, trainers, mentors and others to help them understand exactly what tensions migrants are likely to face (e.g., in balancing their cultural identity development and integrating into the larger Italian society) and how best to support and work with the migrants


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Pubblicato da Paolo Nardi

Dr Paolo Nardi is International Affairs and Research Officer at Cometa VET Centre (Italy) and Coordinator of the UNESCO-UNEVOC Centre for Italy. Co-opted Board Member of VETNET (association of researchers in VET). Fellow at PlusValue. Board Member of the Journal Economics and Policy of Energy and the Environment. Degree in Public Administration and International Institutions and PhD in International Law and Economics at Università Bocconi; MA in Public Policy at Brunel University London. His research interests shifted from human geography (namely: non profit, social innovation and community development) to education and training, namely innovations in pedagogy and life skills.

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