Museumstechnik, a museum-display maker, boasts a signature work: the shockproof pedestal holding the Nefertiti bust, one of the jewels of Berlin’s art collections. Onlookers can stomp and jump, but the priceless Egyptian relic remains perfectly still.
The company plays a part in another marvel, too. Squeezed between railway lines on the fringes of central Berlin, the 15-employee company is one of 500,000 German employers that take on young graduates each year for a thorough apprenticeship. These often lead to full-time jobs.
This decades-old commitment of bosses and teenagers to the German vocational training system is widely regarded as the secret behind the country’s relatively low youth unemployment rate, which was 7.9 per cent in May, two-thirds less than the European Union’s average of 22.7 per cent unemployed under-25s, according to Eurostat.
This is in part a cyclical phenomenon. Germany has so far powered through the eurozone crisis, with the EU’s statistical agency putting its total seasonally adjusted jobless rate at 5.6 per cent. But it is also a structural one. Youth unemployment in Germany has hovered two to three points above total unemployment, while in France or Spain it has regularly run at two or three times the jobless rate.
Alarming rates of youth unemployment around the world are forcing policy makers to re-examine their labour practices, with countries such as Portugal passing legislation to make it easier to hire and fire workers. The German apprenticeship programme, which dates back to an overhaul of vocational training in 1969 but has roots in old guild system, is widely considered to be the gold standard. But it has proved difficult to copy.
On a recent Monday, Artem Treskow is on his first day as Museumstechnik’s new apprentice in technical-product design. “I had expected to make coffee all day, which would have been OK,” says the boyish 20-year-old. “But I already have a desk and an exercise to be getting on with on the computer-aided design software.”
After the school holidays, Mr Treskow’s hands-on training will be enhanced with book-learning at a local vocational college, three days per fortnight. This two- to three-year course will be monitored by the local chambers of commerce, and the resulting qualification will be nationally recognised.
“Because it is so decentralised, vocational training has proved very flexible, allowing it to meet the demand of industry very quickly,” says Ekkehard Ernst, chief of the employment trends unit at the International Labour Organization in Geneva. “It’s quicker and closer to the market than other training systems in more centralised countries, where you might find a national employment ministry calling the shots.”
The success of Germany’s Duales Ausbildungssystem, or dual training system (the name refers to its mix of book learning and hands-on experience) has led the US, India and other countries to study it as a possible model for their own policies.
But Mr Ernst notes that it is not easily replicated, in part due to its organisational complexity. Companies give their view of the job market to local chambers of commerce, which then send those ideas to the national decision-making bodies. “A flexible training system is a simple idea – but one which isn’t easy to copy,” he says.
From animal caretaker to lacquer and varnish laboratory technician to wooden-toy maker, the apprenticeship system offers 344 training courses. Of these, 43 were introduced only in the past decade and 171 adapted to keep pace with job-market changes. Last year, for instance, technical drawing evolved into technical product design.
“The carmakers pushed for a course with more than just drawing,” says Sven Jürgens, who qualified as Museumtechnik’s first technical product designer in 2011. “They wanted draughtsmen who knew about project development and planning.”
The 29-year-old, who is moving to a car-design firm this summer, recalls his apprenticeship fondly. “Naturally, you get asked to do some menial tasks, liking being a messenger or packing boxes,” he says. “But it’s give and take – and what you take with you is very broad knowledge of your craft.”
Steffen Gunnar Bayer, a vocational training expert at the association of German chambers of commerce, says: “If a company identifies with a training course, it will have the drive to carry it out.” When that happens, young people reciprocate.
The consistent quality of Germany’s vocational training means a large proportion of the country’s school graduates do not give university much thought. In 2011, 570,000 signed up for new vocational apprenticeships, compared with only 520,000 university enrolments.
Last year, companies failed to fill 30,000 apprenticeships, in part because of a mismatch of supply and demand – more applications for media jobs than for butchering, for example. But there are also mounting worries about the preparedness of teenagers leaving the school system.
“Waning demand for low-skilled workers seems to have hit young people more than older ones,” Mr Ernst cautions. For all of its marvels, he says, “Germany does have its problems”.
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