Change and resistance in the German apprenticeship system

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VERDI members in Deutsche Post demonstrating over wages

Deutsche Post, the postal service best known outside Germany through its courier arm DHL, has found itself in hot water over proposed changes to its apprenticeship scheme. Currently, the enterprise annually takes 1,400 young people through the much-admired ‘dual system’, combining supervised workplace learning  with formal education in a trade school, working towards a qualification in delivery services. In future, it plans to reduce this number to 750 a year, and take a further 750 who will be trained through work-based learning.

This decision has been sharply criticised by the public service labour union VERDI (or “ver.di” as it prefers to be branded), which described the decision as ‘intolerable’. The ground for VERDI’s objection is less the introduction of a three-year work-based route than the reduction in the number of two-year dual system places, which it described as ‘withdrawing from responsibility for young people’.

For me, what matters about this dispute is the light it sheds on attempts to reform apprenticeship in Germany. According to Deutsche Post, the aim is to open up its reruitment to adult workers with experience in other occupations who wish to retrain as skilled courier, express and postal workers. It argues that the new pathway has the same quality as the dual system, and will equally end with an examination administered by the national Chamber for Industry and Trade, who will then similarly award the certificate. The advantage of the new scheme, it claims, is that it will allow the firm to widen the scope of its recruitment to include adults.

And there lies the rub. Germany’s dual system has a global reputation for quality – something that VERDI deploys as a reason to resist change. But in our fast-moving labour market, the dual system with its focus on school-leavers moving into their first (and lifelong) job can also be understood as too rigid to form an effective component of a lifelong learning system.

Deutsche Post’s initiative is therefore well worth watching as a possible sign of increasing flexibility in the dual system. And as the firm has more employees outside than inside Germany, then it might be worth asking what the implications are for DHL delivery staff in other countries.

 

 

 

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The striking success of the German dual system

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An apprentice addressing strikers in Cologne

There’s a Warnstreik on today, and Cologne is full of striking Kindergarten teachers, social workers, firefighters, health workers and tram drivers. It’s all part of the regular round of negotiations over pay and conditions in the public services, with the union Verdi and the employers engaging in what may or may not be a tactical stand-off.

With the tram service cancelled, I’ve been working at home. At half past eleven, I thought I’d pop along to Heumarkt to buy an espresso and take a look at the union rally, which was large and good-natured. There was a small police presence down by the Rhein, with none of the forcible ‘kettling’ that you tend to see in Britain.

While most of the strikers were clearly people who had spent some time in their jobs, I was struck by the number of apprentices who were there, one of whom was invited to speak from the platform. He described the strike as important for Azubis (Auszubildende) not simply in terms of their pay but also the quality of their training, which he claimed was jeopardized by the employers’ refusal to negotiate.

I’ve a couple of comments to make on this. First, the union doesn’t just recruit apprentices but went out of its way to ensure that their voice was heard. Second, apprentices clearly feel themselves to be a part of their workforce, and they identify strongly with the service that they provide. Both of these factors – as well as their legal status as employees – help to shape their identity as members of an occupational group, in it for the long term.

Vocational education on parade: a microcosm of German’s dual system

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I’m currently living in Cologne, where I’m fortunate enough to have a visiting post at the university. My blog in the coming months will likely contain more pieces on German education than usual.

This time I want to write about Karneval, supposedly a way of marking the onset of Lent, but actually a massive celebration of everything Kölsch. The central features of Karneval are that five days of fancy dress, drinking, and parades. The parades range from local neighbourhood activities through to the four-hour march and ride by members of the Karneval associations (many of whom dress in eighteenth century military uniforms). In the middle comes the Schulzöch, or schools parade, involving secondary pupils and members of various local clubs, wearing home-made fancy dress.

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Among the 49 schools who paraded this year were the staff and pupils of Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. The Berufskollege in the Land of Nordrhein-Westfalen are secondary level institutions who accept young people who have completed their ten years of compulsory education, most of whom will have an apprenticeship contract with a local employer, and leads to a formal examination and certificate on completion.

This represents a highly structured pathway into skilled employment. Pupils can expect a combination of college-based and work-based learning, with a mixture of vocational and general education. On conclusion they can, if they wish, move on to higher education, through a Fachhochschul (broadly, a technical university).

Let me take the role of baker, a trade which requires three years of workplace experience, combined with college instruction in work organisation, production techniques, and sales, as well as politics, social science, German, sport and health, communications, and religious studies. In short, the aim remains that of a well-trained baker with a rounded skillset.

From a UK perspective, two things stand out about this pattern. The first is the specialist nature of the Berufskolleg, which is defined as a school with a specific purpose; to our eyes, it would look like a form of streaming, in which kids are placed rigidly at age 16 on different pathways. Second, the highly structured combination of academic and workplace learning over three years, including continuing experiences of general education, is a long way from the mishmash of programmes of different lengths and types that are branded as apprenticeships in the UK.

The German system has its critics, but it is generally held to be a gold standard against which other European transitions are judged. Naturally I can’t speak for the quality of the training and education at the Berufskolleg Ehrenfeld. What I can say is that the bread in Ehrenfeld is, as almost everywhere in Germany, wonderful.

Is Germany’s dual system faltering?

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.bibb

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.

Is the Dual System in Germany at a turning point?

Germany’s apprenticeship system is known and admired across the world. Widely seen as guaranteeing a high-skills labour force, the German ‘Dual System’ combines a broad education with intensive mentoring, supervision and practice in the workplace. Germany’s universities, by contrast, enjoy no such reputation for dynamism and success. So it is interesting to hear of growing concern in Europe’s economic powerhouse over the future balance between the academic and vocational pathways.

For many decades, the vocational path was taken by the great majority of German school-leavers. And impressive numbers continue to do so. In 2012, almost 550,000 young people signed contracts to begin one of the 350-odd officially recognized and heavily regulated apprenticeships. Yet the numbers starting in the dual system are falling, while the numbers entering higher education are rising.

In 2011-12, some 518,000 enrolled in a higher education institution. If current trends continue, more school-leavers will be entering an HEI than are following an apprenticeship. And that will, at least in symbolic terms, be quite a turning point.

Unsurprisingly, some Germans think this a most unhealthy trend. Julian Nida-Rümelin, a Munich philosophy professor and social-democrat politician, describes the trend as an ‘academicization delusion’. For Nida-Rümelin, the dual system should be valued for producing highly educated and well-trained skilled workers, who come from all layers of society. But he also shares with other leading academics a belief that too many young people are entering higher education who cannot cope with the demands of their chosen subject.

On the other side of the debate, the German government and the OECD see the growth of higher education as a welcome step towards a knowledge economy. Currently, the proportion of graduates in German society lies well below the EU average. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD says the market is sending a clear message: if graduates earn 74% more than those who complete apprenticeships, then of course young people will enrol in higher education.

This earnings differential should raise some eyebrows in countries where the German dual system has been held up as an example. How can it be that the world’s best-trained skilled specialists earn little over half as much as the graduates of a rather middle-ranking HE system? Part of the answer lies in the very scope of the dual system, which encompasses a vast range of occupations, including some that are not always well-paid.
The largest single group among the 2012 intake were people training for the retail sector. And yes, before you ask, the majority of this group were women.

So while it is true that the dual system produces some very skilled and rounded workers in specialist trades like mechatronics or medical technicians, it is also producing shop assistants. Thanks to the dual system, German shop assistants are mostly highly literature, pretty numerate and often competent in one or more foreign languages. And closer to home, given my interests, the system produces bakers who understand the science of bread-making and brewers who understand the science of beer.

But the risk that Julian Nida-Rümelin points to is that apprenticeships are becoming a second class pathway, while the academic option becomes the royal road. And the example of Britain is not, in this respect, particularly encouraging.