You're hired: How the apprentice gets ahead in Germany

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Berlin


Germany may have an ultra-modern economy but one of the pillars at the very centre of it is very traditional: the idea that people learn a skill on the job.

image captionMarkus Heinze has taken advantage of Germany's apprenticeship system

Right at the core of the economy are apprentices.

Just to get a sense of how pervasive the system is and how wide-ranging the possibilities are, just go to the website of the country's Economy and Technology Ministry.

There you will find page after page of advice on every conceivable occupation from A to Z: Anlagenmechaniker (plant mechanic) to Zweiradmechaniker (bike mechanic) via Holzspielzeugmacher (wooden toy maker), Manufakturporzellaner (porcelain maker) and Schuhmacher (shoe-maker).

Germany has a "dual system" - the apprentice spends some time learning on the job and the rest learning broader theoretical subjects, relevant to the job, at a college.

Courses are designed by employers and government with trade unions also involved.

Employers and government pay for them, with the wage to the apprentice often about a third of what they get when they are qualified.

Learning with your hands

Leonardo Duricic, Chief Technical Officer for C. Bechstein, which has been making pianos in Germany since 1853, says: "In the apprenticeship which is three-and-a half years you learn practical work which is about eight to nine months of the year".

"The rest of the time is used to learn the theory. The apprentices go to a special school for piano makers. But if you only learn theory, it's like learning swimming by reading a book."

The practical work involves the treating of wood and iron in complex, fine ways to produce a masterpiece of engineering on which masterpieces of music can be played.

Leonardo Duricic knows the benefits of both ways of education, the theoretical and the practical.

He went to university himself first but then decided he wanted to make pianos so took an apprenticeship.

"I first went to college and learnt the academics. I had a vast, nice education - but professionally I was able to do nothing."

One of his apprentices, Markus Heinze, told the BBC of the benefits of this way of training: "The advantage is that you learn with your hands and get into a field that couldn't be learnt at a university, especially the building of pianos".

"The other thing is that you start to get money from the beginning and this a big advantage."

But does he feel there is a snobbery which puts those who work with their hands below those who work with their brains and learn at university?

"That exists in Germany but it isn't a big difference. You have some people who work with their brains on computers and things like that and they earn more money but some hand-craft people are pretty well paid too."

Mr Duricic says that apprentices are tested, before being taken on, on their sense of hearing - as well as wider aspects of aptitude and attitude.

"We also give them free-of-charge piano lessons, and training on music and composers, in addition to the hand-crafting and the profession that they are learning."

Unfilled places

There are disadvantages to apprenticeships, too.

Firstly, some fear that they tie people too closely to a particular industry.

The broader the skills, the broader the opportunities, so the key is to mix specific and broader training.

At the moment, there are about 40,000 unfilled apprenticeship places available in Germany.

Employers bemoan the lack of applicants, but the problem is partly money. The better the funding for apprenticeship schemes, the more the burden on the coffers of the funders, namely companies and tax-payers.

The dilemma is that training for the future costs money today - as pay to the apprentices and for the teaching facilities - and when funds are tight, the pressure on those funds is greater.

But nobody can deny that in an economy which is doing very well, apprenticeships have been a solid pillar to economic success.

This feature is from a BBC World Service series looking at the challenges facing young people across the globe as they try to enter the job market. You can listen to more on Newshour at 1300GMT.

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