Learning by doing is a cornerstone of the German education system. Whether someone wants to become a carpenter or a hotel concierge, she has probably gone though what is known as the dual education system. This system combines time spent in the classroom with work at a company.
Most students complete their high school degrees between the ages of 15 and 18, depending on what type of school they attended. Then they have the option to specialize. Some go to universities, while others enter a dual training scheme.
To look at how one of these training schemes work, let's take two imaginary students: Susanna and Andreas. Susanna is 16 and wants to learn how to become a photographer. The 15-year-old Andreas plans to become an electrician. They can both learn their trades by attending a vocational training course usually lasting between two and three-and-a-half years. These courses cover more than 350 different occupations that are approved by the businesses and federal bodies overseeing the program.
To begin, Susanna and Andreas approach companies to ask whether a trainee position is available. Chances are both will find a placement. Statistics from Germany's Federal Employment Agency show more than 450,000 available trainee positions for 2013, with many likely to go unfilled. “Last year, around 70,000 places with the sectors of industry and commerce could not be filled with students (i.e. apprentices),” says Ulrike Friedrich from the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK). Friedrich adds, “For this year...we expect nearly the same number of vacancies.”
Despite a rise in the number of people going through the apprentice program, Germany's demographics can't keep up with demand. Fewer people are having children. That means there are fewer people to fill the positions vacated by older workers. The other challenge is the available apprenticeships do not always match the kind sought by students. But there are typically many positions for trainees in select areas like metal working, healthcare, and social services.
Susanna finds a spot at a photo studio. Andreas will work at an electrical repair company. Both spend three to four days a week working alongside professionals at the company and one day a week taking classes at a vocational school. At the company, they learn their trades by following the example of coworkers and keeping detailed journals of the new skills they've acquired. At school, they attend courses relevant to their fields. The vocational curriculum is designed to balance the practical information gained at a workplace with more theoretical training. Susanna's math class, for instance, deals with the different types of calculations a photographer needs. Andreas' class is more focused on topics like the physics of electricity.
Students are accountable for both their academic and on-the-job learning throughout the program. Although businesses and schools operate independently of each other, students are usually required to show their grades to their managers. Trainees must also pass two major exams over the course of their studies. In the middle of their programs, Andreas and Susanna take a test to evaluate their progress and to highlight any gaps of knowledge. At the end of their studies, they take a final exam to show whether they have the necessary qualifications to enter their fields. The exams include both written and/or oral elements, as well as practical exercises. Andreas finishes the written section and is asked to perform a variety of tasks at a workshop, like making electrical connections using different cables. Susanna finishes her written and oral test and is given a handful of topics to photograph and print in a book by the end of the month. Both pass and are on the way to careers, a good result for a few years of additional education.
The majority of German high school graduates, about 60 percent, take the same road as Susanna and Andreas. Vocational training offers a high degree of job security. The professional certificates issued to students at the end of their programs are well respected within their fields, and more than half of apprentices stay on as full-time employees at the businesses where they trained. They even get paid during their studies. The average monthly training stipend is approximately 680 Euro (almost $900).
The success of vocational training programs depends on the cooperation and investment from companies, says Thomas Zielke, president and chief executive of the Representative of German Trade and Industry (RGIT). Estimated costs for one trainee run around 15,300 euro annually. “But we also show a return on investment of around 11,700 euro,” says Zielke. Students contribute work like a regular employee, they require less training once they have a job, and companies don't need to spend as much money advertising for positions. “So you see it is not as costly as it appears at first glance,” he says.
Interest in German vocational programs isn't limited to Germans. Germany's low youth unemployment rate (around 8 percent) compared with the high unemployment rates of some other EU countries is spurring job seekers to seek out vocational opportunities in Germany. Prospects for EU citizens interested in landing an apprenticeship in Germany are improving given the growing need for interested applicants; even some non-EU nationals are securing positions. Authorities recommend applying directly to a company early and, in cases of visa questions, speaking with the International Placement Service (ZAV). Students are advised to apply early to secure a spot, but with more than 500,000 companies offering training positions, the odds are good they'll find one.