German apprenticeships have long served as a global model for vocational training systems. The German system has an enviable reputation for combining quality with volume, and for balancing a continued academic education with systematic on-the-job learning. It remains a source of pride nationally, and continues to attract a steady flow of foreign visitors in search of a solution to their own skills problems.
Of course, no vocational training system is perfect, particularly when seen from close up. At different times the system has been criticised for embedding gender divisions, and its rigidity is often seen as incompatible with the shift towards more flexible regimes of labour. Some have cautiously expressed concerns over reported variations between standards in the different Länder.
What is causing particular concern within Germany at the moment is that apprenticeships appear to be losing their attraction to school-leavers. In 2014, German employers signed on 522,200 new apprentices – the lowest figure since unification in 1990, representing a fall of over 40,000 young people. And while some of this may be caused by demographic changes, this is not the only explanation.
What many foreign observers often miss, or ignore, is that well-qualified school leavers in Germany often entered an apprenticeship in the past, but now prefer to enter higher education. . As I’ve said before, the point at which the number of undergraduates overtakes the number of apprentices is bound to have symbolic significance in a country that has made its apprenticeship system a gold standard.
Adapting the dual system is complex and can be slow. One of the system’s great strengths is that it is supported actively and well understood by a range of stakeholders – employers and their associations, different levels of government, trade unions, parents and the wider public. But involving all these stakeholders in reform is unlikely to produce quick and easy solutions, and so it has proven.
Several measures have nonetheless been agreed. Part-time pathways were opened up in 2005, but ten years on they still have the temporary-sounding status of a project. Apprentices are being recruited in other EU member states, particularly those with high youth unemployment like Portugal and Spain. Selected school-leavers can combine work-based-learning with a higher education qualification, a pattern known as “duales Studium”. The government is urging employers to lower the entry qualifications for apprenticeship contracts, and is funding coaching to help make up the gap.
There are also discussions over opening the scheme up to refugees, though this is likely to prove politically controversial. And so far the question of adult entry into apprenticeships remains off the agenda – in contrast to the UK, of course.
I dounbt whether the measures taken so far are enough to stem what has been a steady and long-term process of erosion. The remorseless rise in higher education participation rates is a global phenomenon, and its effects on the German apprenticeship system are unlikely to diminish any time soon.