'The best engineers come from Germany'
- 18 September 2013
- From the section Business
"I think the apprentices will be guaranteed a job when we go back, so I think we'll be OK," said Rhys from Bristol.
He and his fellow fresh-faced apprentices are huddled around a noisy workbench in Berlin. At just 19, he is one of the youngest in his group at this training centre.
Rhys, a keen rugby player, says he is settling into the German lifestyle and has even found a rugby club nearby.
He is one of just 2,200 young workers chosen from some 45,000 applicants by the electronics and electrical engineering giant Siemens for its pan-European training scheme.
Another apprentice, 21-year-old Gabriel from Northampton, says he came to Berlin to learn the German way.
"They are much more precise, they go into detail a lot more," he says.
"It helps you understand why all the best engineers and creatives come from here."
It is a point that was recently made by the British business lobby group, the CBI.
It warned that the UK's traditional educational route, of A-levels followed by a university degree, was not the only path to a good job and could help deepen a skills crisis in the UK.
The CBI called for more earn-as-you-learn schemes, supported by companies, alongside traditional degrees - and cited Germany as one of the leaders in vocational education.
Siemens's trainees have come from all over Europe for the company's three-year programme, that will give them an income while they learn the art of German engineering.
"I know that right now, it's not the best time to find a job. It's why I'm doing this in Germany," says 20-year old Miguel from Madrid.
He hopes to return to Spain, despite dire employment prospects at home, where one in two young people is out of work.
"Everybody knows what the label 'Made in Germany' means," says 22-year-old Vainius from Lithuania.
"This is a perfect example of how they do it. It is an excellent chance for everyone here."
In Spain, says Miguel, "we don't have opportunity to study practical and theory at same time."
In another classroom at the firm's vast training centre, a British girl stumbles over German grammar. Learning to speak German is part of the deal.
Apprentices here are encouraged to immerse themselves in the culture, offered help in opening a bank account and in other aspects of living abroad: it is a very German approach.
Germany's vocational system has been around for decades and is deeply embedded in society. A university degree does not have quite the same cachet here that it does in many other developed countries.
Youngsters who are not qualified for or interested in going to university can join a programme in which they work part of the week for a firm that pays them and teaches them relevant skills.
The rest of the time they spend in school.
Chambers of commerce and industry bodies are involved, to ensure that the work and the teaching are matched.
After their apprenticeships, the trainees often have jobs to walk into, in sectors including electrical engineering, sales and marketing, shipping and agriculture.
Roughly two out of three young Germans go through this system.
'They are loyal and proud'
"It's a very practical, applied approach, where young people are partly hired, partly subsidised in this dual education system," says Nora Hesse, a Berlin-based economist at the Open Europe think tank.
"They do receive some money but not too much, and their education is covered by the company that hires them," she says.
Martin Stoeckmann, who runs Siemens's training centre, says that the apprenticeships are a good investment for both the young people and the companies involved.
"Around 90% of them stay at Siemens after they finish their education. They are loyal and proud to be at the company," he says.
The company denies claims that schemes like this represent a brain drain, as Germany sucks in the brightest and best youngsters from all over Europe.
"They are all expected to go home - still working for Siemens - but in their homeland," says Mr Stoeckmann.
Advocates of Germany's vocational training point to the fact that despite the global recession, the number of young Germans out of work remains low.
Youth unemployment in Germany is under 8%, compared with 56% in Spain and 38% in Italy.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the number of 15- to 29-year-olds not in education, employment or training has risen in most OECD countries - except in Germany.
However, some argue that there are drawbacks to this vocational bias.
Countries that combine school and work-based education, such as Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland, may help young people into jobs, but in older age, these workers' skills can become obsolete, says the influential Munich-based Ifo Institute.
Knowledge is also limited to the operations of the company that trains them.
Yet with a crisis that has hit growth and the job prospects of many young people across Europe, for the apprentices at Siemens, this system offers hope.
Rhys says he is confident of his own future, thanks to the technical training he is getting.
But he says that back in Britain - where 960,000 people aged 16 to 24 are jobless - many of his friends face an uncertain future.
"I am worried for a lot of other people," he says.