The thing that most impresses me during my ramble through Germany is the German dual education system. If small- and medium-sized businesses form Germany’s economic backbone, the great secret to their success is this unique three-year combination of in-company training (in 344 different trades) and classroom instruction in both humanitarian and technical topics.
With historical roots in the medieval apprenticeship system, and a modernized variant created in the postwar years, the dual education system has for decades provided German industry, both large and small, with a reliable stream of well-trained, highly-motivated workers. And it provides the workers, a significant portion of the population, with the tools they need for long-term jobs and security even in fast-changing global market conditions.
Cranking out several hundred thousand freshly trained specialists—from mechatronics specialists to metal workers to lab technicians—per year gives Germany a huge leg up on all its competition, American and otherwise. It seems, frankly, like a no-brainer. But can it be copied?
While the rest of Europe—and even the U.S.—struggles with alarming rates of youth unemployment, Germany’s rate is only 7.9 percent. France’s is more than double that. Spain and Greece are sucking air with 50 percent youth joblessness.
No wonder Spain’s education minister recently signed a letter of understanding with Germany’s education minister, Annette Schavan, to import the German model to Spain.
Germany’s interest? Besides a show of solidarity, Germany is desperate to fill a shortage of trained workers, now and especially in the future. The difference between today’s labor shortage and the need for guest workers in the 1950s and 1960s is education: The German economy doesn’t need coal miners and street cleaners so much as highly-skilled machine operators and computer-savvy information specialists. And it is willing to train them in Germany.
Training the machine operators of the future is one of the main goals at Fischer’s Black Forest headquarters. One morning I meet Julia Gölz in the company’s training facility cheek-by-jowl with the Dübel factory. When Julia was in the seventh class of her school, she faced a choice: dual education in a home economics field or in a technical one. For Julia, it was an easy decision. She chose the technical profession, even though she would be one of the few girls in her training course.