Germans Question Traditional Means of Learning a Job ; in the US and Germany, Economic Realities Drive New Approaches to Vocational Education

By Isabelle de Pommereau Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

Germans Question Traditional Means of Learning a Job ; in the US and Germany, Economic Realities Drive New Approaches to Vocational Education


Isabelle de Pommereau Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Janine Frisch used to see painting as a job. But at the Philipp Holzmann School she's discovered a profession - and also a passion.

Like all pupils in Germany's specialized vocational system, Ms. Frisch learns both in school and on the job. And after she's through with her three years of training, she'll be able to tackle any painting job from a factory to a mansion.

"There's a lot more to the job than putting paint on a wall, It's varied, creative," says Frisch, who alternates one week in school with two weeks at a painting firm that specializes in historic structures. She can paint with a sponge, a spray, or a ruler, and draft client invoices. "And I've even discovered techniques I could apply to my own home," she says.

Perhaps no other country has so thoroughly integrated job training with actual hands-on experience. The apprenticeship system in Germany offers trainees three years of formal study combined with on-the-job learning in any of about 365 different trades ranging from bank clerks to telephone operators, car mechanics to beauticians.

This dual approach to education has become a model admired worldwide. It's also viewed as one of the tools that helped Germany recruit a highly skilled, specialized workforce and become a top economic power after the devastation of World War II.

But today some complain that Germany's once prized system is no longer living up to its goals. A downward economy has forced companies to scale back their paid trainee positions. Many German companies today are making do with a cheaper - albeit generally less highly trained - workforce.

This year, a third of young Germans seeking an apprenticeship - about 35,000 youths - didn't find one, according to the Institute of Vocational Training in Bonn.

The problem recently surfaced at the top of the political agenda.

Under pressure to fight youth unemployment and counter a shortage of skilled labor, the German government has now threatened to penalize companies that don't train. The proposed new law has created a storm of controversy, with unions hailing it even as critics decry it as counterproductive and bureaucratic.

The real problem, say employers, is that pupils no longer come to them ready to be trained, making apprenticeship programs much more difficult to administer.

"Our dual system has proved itself and we have to keep it," says Johannes Hilgendorf, a director at the Philipp Holzmann School, which specializes in construction professions, from roofing to car painting. "The problem is in our society. In the past, the main goal was to learn a trade. Today it's a secondary goal, next to entertaining and having friends."

Norbert Dieter, who took over the Frankfurt painting company started by his grandfather, sees hiring young apprentices as an investment in the future. …

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