Sven Mueller graduated from high school two years ago with good grades and plans to become a teacher. “But then I thought, I want something I can rely on now. So I started to look around for possible apprenticeships.”
The 21-year-old decided on mortuary sciences after being exposed to the profession through the parents of his girlfriend. “It was the only apprenticeship I could imagine doing. Being a mortician is interesting. Death is an important part of life, and you get to help people.” Since Mueller had good grades in high school, he wanted to shoot high and apply to a large and well-respected funeral home. After doing some research online, he decided to send applications to two different homes. At his first interview in Frankfurt, the manager hired him immediately, and Mueller began the vocational training process.
The way dual training programs in Germany work is that students apply directly to employers for apprenticeships. Once they've found an apprenticeship, the employers enroll them in a local training school, called a Berufsschule. Students, typically between the ages of 16 and 19, spend a few days of the week at work, earning a small stipend, and a few days at school, learning the theoretical side of their jobs. The process usually lasts two to three years and culminates in a certification exam. More than 350 professions are officially recognized as training occupations in Germany, and more than 60 percent of high school graduates regularly participate in the apprenticeship system.
Mueller's training program is structured in blocks of work and study. He works Monday through Friday at the funeral home as an apprentice and then, seven times a year, spends two-week blocks at one school in Bad Kissingen and one in Muennerstadt. In Bad Kissingen he studies everything from English to bookkeeping. The training institute in Muennerstadt teaches practical details not covered at his job like digging a grave, preparation of the bodies, and learning how to assist families.
“It is really cool because you have time to be in the funeral home and to be out there doing the job. Then you have school, which is fun,” Mueller says. “I have the option to shorten my training program from three years to two years, but I think I'll do the full three years. This is a job you really have to understand and grow into.”
The on-the-job training is a fundamental part of Germany's vocational system, and so too is the classroom education. Anna Gewiese teaches at a Berufsschule in Giessen. Like Mueller, she went through the vocational system too. She apprenticed at a publishing house and then stayed on as an employee. After a few years work at the publisher and then at a bank, Gewiese went back to school for her teaching degree. She now teaches industrial clerks and legal assistants subjects like economics, management, and English.
Students have the option to apply for many different apprenticeships each year. Statistics from Germany's Federal Employment Agency show more than 450,000 available trainee positions for 2013. The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry lists some of the open positions on its national apprenticeship website, and the group plans to launch an app soon to make the search easier. Gewiese sees some students struggle to decide on an apprenticeship and find the kind of position they want. “It is really hard to get into some apprenticeships, especially at a bank,” she says. But Gewiese sees a lot of students finding good apprenticeships in the industrial area. Many of the big companies in Germany have a high demand for applicants interested in subjects like engineering. “They are really searching for people who want to learn this,” she says.
Gewiese believes the keys for success in this system are curiosity and ambition. “Also nowadays you really have to be able to work in teams, and you should never be arrogant,” she says. “Some students think they are overqualified for this school. They ask, 'What can you teach me when I can learn everything at work?' But you learn some completely different things at school which can be quite helpful later on. These things can also be relevant for the final exam or useful background information for their daily routine at the company.”
Gewiese sees some room for improvement in the vocational training system. She says not all of the teachers at the Berufsschule have gone through the vocational system themselves. That can hinder their understanding of students' needs. She wishes that more teachers would take the time to visit the companies where their students work. She occasionally goes on tours to see what students are learning on the job so that she can blend it with the classroom teaching. “It is helpful because things from the past may have changed, and I might not be up-to-date—especially for the industrial class,” she says. “Sometimes students will tell me, 'No, Ms. Gewiese, it is not like that.' Sometimes the things I read in the book are new and only theoretical to me since they have changed from the time when I was working.” But by visiting the companies, she updates her knowledge and can better instruct the students.
Many of the apprenticeships, but not all, pay a stipend. Sven Mueller, the mortuary sciences student, doesn't get paid, but his employer does help him with the travel and living costs during his two-week trips to the school in Bayern. He says many apprentices at smaller funeral homes have to deal with the education fees themselves. “It can be really expensive because you have to pay the costs to get there and then to sleep in the hotel,” he says. “They really struggle.”
Even with some struggles, many students are thankful for the concrete work experience. Mueller says he's learning what the job is really like, and he's confident about his career path. Gewiese says although she is no longer working in publishing, the experience she gathered was worth it. “At one point I wondered whether it was good to do my apprenticeship at a publishing company because it doesn't have much to do with what I'm doing today, but I've realized experience is always good for something,” she says. “You cannot say that it is perfect to have a clear career path. It is good to gather all of these experiences. They help create your personality and influence your future.”