What can the UK learn from the German apprenticeship system?
With most of Europe in stagnation, the financial sector on the brink of collapse and the Euro falling through the floor, you would expect the prospects for young people in Germany during the Eurozone crisis would be bleak, to say the least. In actual fact, the German youth unemployment rate has fallen from around 11% to 8% since the start of the crisis, which prompts the question: how did they do it?
It could be because of Germany’s dual system. The dual system (also referred to as apprenticeships), is an apprenticeship split between the classroom -provided by the state- and the workplace -paid for by companies-, ensuring apprentices receive a mix of the theory and practical behind their degree. Apprentices leave the course with a nationally recognised certificate for their profession, and high standards of practical training are maintained by the Handelskammer – Germany’s apprenticeship regulatory authority.
The system has been praised by many in the international community, and for the most part, this praise is hard earned. The percentage of young Germans not in employment, education or training (NEETs) is way below that of other Eurozone countries. A recent survey from the McKinsey Centre for Government found that Germany has the the lowest percentage -out of all large Eurozone economies- of employers who think a lack of skills is a major problem for their company. And on completion, around two thirds of young people are hired by the firm that provided their apprenticeship. According to a paper published by the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, the dual system allows young people to ‘move smoothly into skilled work’ and avoids the ‘polarised qualification structure’ -such as in the UK- where there are few qualifications to straddle the huge gulf between those with and without a university degree.
But the dual system is more polarised than many think. According to that same paper, the system is ‘highly segmented’, with apprenticeships for high-flying jobs going to the most academically able, whilst insecure and low-paying ones go to those with little academic qualifications. In many cases low-achievers are forced out of the dual system altogether – apprentices with no degree or only a lower secondary school degree make up just 4 and 28 per cent of apprentices respectively. Instead, they are relegated to watered down versions of apprenticeships, know as prevocational training measures, where less than a third of low achieving participants enter a job upon completion.
This is compounded by strong regional inequalities: 16 to 17 year olds -the majority of apprentices- find it difficult to move around to find better apprenticeships, and data from the OECD show that the GDP of ex-communist east German states continues to lag behind that of western ones. As the number and quality of apprenticeships is based on market performance, poorer areas will always have worse apprenticeships. Prevocational training also does little to help disadvantaged Germans escape poorer areas because they are denied the nationally recognised certificate of dual-system apprenticeships.
In addition to this, the dual system poorly serves disabled Germans. In 2011 only 2% of newly created apprenticeships were tailored specifically for disabled people, even though they constitute 7% of schoolchildren in total. The academic achievements of those who studied under these apprenticeships was also not representative of disabled teenagers: the majority of them had a degree at least at a lower secondary school level, whilst three quarters of disabled Germans leave school without one.
The overall system has still done relatively well for disadvantaged young people in comparison to the UK largely because of its excellent schools. The McKinsey Centre for Government claims Germany has a below average rate of poor young people failed by the system (12% versus the 20% European average). This could be explained by its secondary school graduation rate: it’s 10 points above the average of OECD countries.
Regulation of the German dual system also prevents more apprenticeships being made available. Membership of the Handelskammer is compulsory, and only 56% of German firms are authorised to give apprenticeships. Creating new courses can take years, with lengthy consultations with every organisation, such as unions and local governments, before approval. Doug Richard, author of the ‘Richard review of apprenticeships’, promotes an alternative approach, where governments have a ‘light touch’ when it comes to regulating apprenticeships, and employers challenged and encouraged to create new ones instead of having their ideas sidelined. The German government could also help young people who want to move to new areas to find better apprenticeships by subsidising their accommodation and travel.
The UK has much to learn from the dual system. We know it does extremely well for most, especially high achievers living in richer areas. But we need to keep in mind excessive regulation of apprenticeships and an over reliance on a system that will always favour rich areas leaves the most disadvantaged behind. The system is good, but it’s far from perfect.