A visit by Ivanka Trump, favorite child of the American president, can bring glamor or controversy, depending on your point of view, to almost anything. Hence the excitement among fans of Germany’s vaunted dual-education system that Ms. Trump, in Germany this week, will also drop by Siemens, one of Germany’s bluest chips, to study how the firm practices vocational training. Indeed, Germany’s dual education, coordinated between firms and specialized colleges, is increasingly feted as a cure for youth unemployment and way to match trained people to technical jobs. Proponents think it could become yet another successful German export. So Ivanka Trump wants to know if it could work in America. But how does it even work in Germany?
Today’s system evolved from much older traditions of apprenticeship in the German-speaking lands, and today has variants in Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Denmark. The current German form dates back to the Vocational Training Act of 1969, a joint effort by government, trade unions and employer organizations. It's tailored to the two-thirds of youngsters who decide, for whatever reason, against an academic career. These young adults pick from a list of practical professions, currently 356. The jobs on offer are highly specialized and often technical, ranging from hearing-aid acoustician through confectioner to aircraft mechanic.
Next, over two or three years, these youngsters divide their time between attending a vocational college and learning on the job. They are paid a small sum, a couple of hundreds of euros a month, and are either allocated to one workplace for the duration of their training, or to several businesses. In a typical arrangement, they spend three days a week at a business and two days a week at their local chamber of commerce or a participating college for theoretical instruction. Because the courses are standardized across Germany, it doesn’t matter which college an apprentice attends or which firm they work at. Upon completing the course and two exams, the student is certified by the chamber of commerce.
By being embedded in companies, apprentices get a taste of what a particular job is like and find out whether it suits them. They also form relationships at the firms, and managers get to observe them. This makes them easier to hire permanently once their training is complete. Apprentices who become employees, unlike most other new hires, already have the bespoke practical skills most useful to their employer. Many firms find that their former apprentices have imbibed the corporate culture during their apprenticeship and need less additional training.
One factor that supports vocational training in Germany is a generally high standard of high-school education, so that although apprentices specialize early, they still have the basic education needed to react flexibly in the future. This implies that for countries eager to import the system, it helps to have good schools. Several are already trying. During the 1990s, Germany helped South Korea to set up a dual-education system. In 2013, Germany pledged to help Spain, Greece, Latvia, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia set up similar routes to helping young people find work.
But dual education is not without its critics. Some studies show that early specialization can be a double-edged sword: Apprentices do better early in their careers because they have jobs. But they often do worse later on because they lack general skills and the habit of lifetime learning in new jobs, new firms and new roles. Once people are in their fifties, a general education in their youth probably earns them higher returns in the labor market than a specialized one.
As jobs and industries are transformed, this question of flexibility is one of the biggest concerns scientists have raised about the dual-education system. The occupations available in the system are updated annually to fit changing customer needs and technological developments. But as change accelerates in many industries, the skills of any individual apprentice tend to become obsolete faster. What are the long-term prospects for specialist organ builders, foresters or bookbinders? How easily can such apprentices transfer their skills to new economic situations?
That said, the dual-education system has distinct advantages, especially in lowering youth unemployment. That's why, in response to American interest, Germany launched a white paper in 2012 to help the US expand apprenticeships. But whether the German dual-training system can be exported, given that it ultimately arose from a long cultural evolution, and whether it can help America address bigger problems such as rocketing college costs and economic inequality remains to be seen.
Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]