Training Deficit Private Sector Edges into Vocational Ed

Germany's public education system that combines on-the-job training and vocational education is admired. But some employers are turning to the private sector, saying the old ways no longer meet their needs.
A trainee grocer at supermarket chain, Rewe.

Dieter Göwel is annoyed when classes at public schools are cancelled again and again, or when no one informs him about students not turning up for classes. That's why he and his colleagues have chosen an alternative also favored by many parents: switching to private schools.

Mr. Göwel leads the staff development group for about 800 trainees in supermarket chain Rewe’s central region in Germany. Since 2011, about 200 of them have studied at a private vocational school rather than a public one.

Germany's much-lauded dual eduaction system allows many young people to combine on-the-job training as apprentices with education at vocational schools. However, the public school system, which often requires students to attend school in the morning and training in the afternoon, is not always geared to employers' needs.

“We sought out a school that offers what it should provide: preparing students for the final exams,” Mr. Göwel said. The school bundles classes every few weeks in blocks and otherwise leaves trainees free to work with their employer. Furthermore, all the Rewe trainees are in one class.

The first batch has already graduated, with results that were as good as those attained at public schools, says Mr. Göwel. The extra money for private school is worth it, he adds. Rewe pays about €1,200 per student per year and also incurs travel and overnight expenses.

Most companies do not shift all their trainees to private schools.

“Private school has contributed to the expertise of our trainees, in any event,” said Mr. Göwel. Previously, Rewe employees had to spend time on working through the school material with trainees during working hours. Now they can concentrate on relaying specialized knowledge that the young trainees who hope to work in the food industry will require.

The world envies Germany its dual vocational training system. But not everyone here is happy with the system, particularly when it comes to the vocational schools.

That's why the number of employers that are paying for private training for their employees is on the rise. For decades, industries in North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, have relied on their own vocational schools – the real estate industry with a school in Bochum, the hospitality industry with one in Dortmund and the roofers with one in the Sauerland region. The media company Bertelsmann has also had its own vocational school since 1962.

Christian Engel, who operates the vocational schools for Rewe, Merck and a big textile company, among others, said he has seen firms' interest increase since it has become harder to find very good trainees. Mr. Engel is expanding: In 2015, he is opening locations of his Pro-Genius vocational schools in Bochum and in the Heilbronn region.

But most companies do not chose to shift all their trainees to private schools. “We want to provide reasonable and orderly training. If public schools can provide what we expect, they're our first choice,” Mr. Göwel of Rewe said.

The school costs the group a sum in the six-digits every year, but it is also much more successful than many public programs.

At the pharmaceutical group Merck, only office administration trainees have been sent to private institutions since 2006. One of the reasons: “Public schools could not offer us blocks of classes,” said Holger Hiltmann, the head of business training. Such blocks have the advantage of allowing trainees to work full-time for four to five weeks in one department and they can complete their own projects while there.

On the other hand, Voith, a technology group, operates its own special vocational school at its headquarters in Heidenheim, a town in Swabia. There, 30 youths with disabilities receive special training to enable them to take a trainee position. “Voith wants to help young people who have not had much luck so far,” said Thomas Born, the managing director of Voith’s service provider subsidiary.

The goal is to prepare them for an occupation, not necessarily for a job with Voith itself. The young people learn how to work with wood, take care of the garden of another school or paint rooms. They end up taking positions in the metal industry, nursing homes and horticulture, for example.

The school costs the group a sum in the six-digits every year – in addition to government subsidies. But in return, it is also much more successful than many public programs. “We place 90 percent of the youths in vocational training programs,” said Mr. Born.


Stefani Hergert has been covering education for Handelsblatt since 2010. To contact the author: [email protected].