What comes to mind when YOU think of Germany? Schnitzel, bratwursts, Oktoberfest? How about a world-class apprenticeship system? Strong business-education partnerships? Heavy involvement of the local chambers of commerce in technical training? Most average Americans know more about the food in Germany than the education structure, but its emphasis on a dual system of education and training has a number of insights to offer to American career and technical educators.
I had the opportunity to observe firsthand the vocational education and training system, or "VET" system as it is known in Germany, during an intensive week of study abroad this summer. Hosted by the University of Bremen; the itinerary included visits to multinational companies, conversations With business and education leaders, and the opportunity to observe students up close.
The VET System
The German VET system is built on the dual principles or practical training at work and theoretical training and education in school, with knowledge and skills directly related to required job experience. As Karlheinz Heidemeyer, director of vocational education and training for the Bremen Chamber of Commerce, emphasized, this dual structure is the "secret" to the success of the German system and the country's overall economy. It provides "just in time" training to workers and "just in time" skilled employees for companies.
Students can enter the VET system alter completion of their lower secondary education, around age 15 or 16, or prepare for university admission through further enrollment in more academically focused, upper-secondary schools. More than two-thirds of German youth choose the VET system, where they are able to both work and learn over a two- to three-and-a-half-year commitment.
Students enrolled in the VET system are employed as "apprentices" in approximately 350 different occupations in companies around the country. They alternate between practical job training at the job site and time in school--perhaps spending one to two days per week in school or alternating longer blocks of time, such as four weeks on the job site and two weeks in school.
As in the United States, the education system is subject to strong local control, with most decisions being made at the German state, or Lander, level. This is definitely true of the VET school component, although there is federal oversight of workplace training. In school, students spend approximately one-third of their time on general subjects like social studies, economics, foreign languages and religion, and the rest on more vocationally oriented two-thirds of subjects like technology, applied math and technical drawing. In many ways, this setup is similar to CTE programs in the United States. The biggest difference is the level of systemic employer involvement and the worksite training that accompanies school for the students.
ArcelorMittal--Committed to the System
To observe the employer side of the dual system firsthand, we visited ArcelorMittal, a company deeply involved in the education and training of its next generation of employees. ArcelorMittal is the world's largest steel producer, with approximately 270,000 employees in 27 countries, including at four production facilities in Germany. At ArcelorMittal Bremen, products include slabs, hot rolled coils, pickled and galvanized coils, and laser-welded plates for the automotive and construction industry, as well as white goods (appliances) manufacturers. Employees must have up-to-date knowledge and skills to maintain high product quality.
One of the ways that ArcelorMittal maintains this high-skill employee base is through participation in the German VET system. Each year, the Bremen plant admits 64 students to its training program in areas including industrial electronics, mechatronics, construction, materials and industrial mechanics. …