Exploring the German Apprenticeship Model
by MCTC President, Dr. Stephen Vacik
July 19, 2019
I recently was fortunate enough to be included with a group who traveled to Munich, Germany. Never having been to Europe, it was a tremendous learning experience in many ways. The city and surrounding countryside was beautiful and though I did not have an opportunity to do much sight-seeing, the history, culture and people I encountered served to create a lasting memory. As one of our local guides astutely shared, and I paraphrase, “our country should not be remembered for only 12 years in our history.” Nonetheless, my trip was a working-one. The purpose was to study the German educational system, specifically their dual vocational and education training (VET), better understood as apprenticeships, and determine if we could improve on what educational institutions are currently doing in the United States, and specifically Kentucky, in my case.
Obviously we have apprenticeships, in many forms, in our country. Maysville Community and Technical College (MCTC), like all Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) institutions, is involved in a number of these work and learn educational options. One such example is the Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) Program, which grew from a relationship between Toyota and KCTCS. Partnering with industrial leaders in our region, students in KY FAME attend MCTC two days per week and work three days per week at individual companies, and complete an Associate’s Degree while applying theoretical knowledge on the job. It is a terrific program, helping to create the highly skilled workforce we so desperately need in Kentucky without burdening students with obtrusive debt. But it is somewhat limited in size and scope (mainly advanced manufacturing) and targets high school graduates and adult students/incumbent workers exclusively. There are other examples of apprenticeships, regionally and nationally, yet most tend to be autonomous – a college, union or company education/training program that is not necessarily standardized and operates across a broad spectrum – and have a variety of goals and outcomes. But they are good.
In my personal review of the German VET system, however, I was reminded of a C.S. Lewis illustration, about a kid who is satisfied making mud pies at home when he could have building sand castles at the beach. As I have stated, what we do with apprenticeships is really good – and please do not misunderstand me, we are not failing somehow; but I am convinced that we can do better. Without becoming Germany, since no country can be just like another. Allow me to explain while keeping it somewhat simple and brief. Please remember, I am not an expert. Yet. In summary, though, the German VET system is based on a partnership between education, industry and the government.
With the education piece, the focus is on the student and not historical norms. Based on factors such as aptitude, interest, parental input and opportunity, students enter either a “traditional” college-prep track (gymnasium) or an apprenticeship track at 15-16 years old. According to German government figures, a solid majority of the population enters the latter. These students sign a contract with a company, for which they are paid a training allowance, and are employed over the next 2-3.5 years as apprentices. During this time, students spend approximately 70% of their “learning” time at work (real world, live conditions) and 30% at the vocational high school (berufsschule), where they have general education (English, mathematics, etc.) along with vocational studies. At the end of their apprenticeship – less than 19 years old for most – the students graduate, becoming journeymen, and are prepared to go to work. Consider also, over 90% of the students who pursue the vocational track are successful in completing their “career” education. Better still, at this point, these graduates have options: they could continue working for the company with which they apprenticed, if both were satisfied; they could take a position with another company; or, they could pursue an advanced, university education. So students are tracked but not trapped – even those who attend the gymnasium later have opportunity to pursue
an apprenticeship, rather than college/university, if they so choose. Flexibility – shorter time to educational completion – cost savings – just a few of the merits of the German apprentice model.
Industry plays a key role, as well, in providing educational and vocational opportunities. About 20% of German companies participate in VET, with over 500,000 new “trainees” annually, and nearly 70% of apprentices hired as journeymen by the companies at which they trained. Financially, there was certainly some tangible investment on behalf of business. The return on investment, however, is a highly-skilled workforce, in addition to the labor-added value of trainees. Specifically, government statistics show that 70% of financial investment is recovered by industry through the “productive contribution of trainees during the training period.” And that doesn’t include the recovered investment from a trained pool of employees. Within the companies and craft guilds we visited, I was impressed by the business leaders who spoke of a shared social responsibility – working together to create the future workforce “pays off” for everyone. In other words, by being good corporate partners with their communities and educational institutions, industry was helping themselves by investing in others.
In Germany, government also plays an important role in the Vocational and Educational Training System. According to their own publication, the German government “finances, supervises and monitors” the public school system, conducts research, organizes standards, raises awareness of VET and “delegates authority to social partners.” Though I do not want it to be misunderstood as self-serving, what struck me was how the government looked to industry and education to provide the expertise in maintaining apprenticeships. Rather than asserting control, they advocated for quality. Their government does maintain high standards, make no mistake – what was required to be a journeyman in Munich was the same for Berlin. The social and economic integration of young people in Germany was most impressive.
I stated previously, we cannot become exactly like Germany; but, we can learn from them and consider some modifications to our own educational system. Beginning much earlier, we need to help students understand career choices and allow them to consider future options – without stigmatizing some vocations as “less than” others. We must feed students’ natural interests and stop establishing standardized curriculum that attempts to normalize the uniqueness of humans. Students, likewise, need to have opportunities to apprentice beginning in 9th or 10th grade – some combination of high school, community college and real-world work experience. I am a product of a liberal arts education. But should we prioritize for all students reading Beowulf over learning principles of basic electricity, or requiring history fair projects rather than designing, estimating and building a pitched roof? (If we are being honest, how many disinterested students even bothered to read assigned literature in high schools?) I do not want to minimize learning, in any form. Could we, perhaps, better focus the interests of students though, and help create the educated workforce that we desperately need? The best result is a better life for so many who often lose interest in traditional, required high school and college coursework. It may not be by continuing to do “as we have always done.” My visit to Germany really caused me to reconsider our approach to and appreciation of apprenticeships and vocational education in our state and nation.
Simply put: we need increased apprenticeships, beginning in the mid-teen years. (Did I mention the level of maturity that I witnessed among German teens in VET?) As for MCTC, we have been, and will continue, to look at how we can increase and improve apprenticeships in our region. I have ideas, sometimes too many. Whether you are an educator, business leader, or just someone who wants our community to thrive, you likely have ideas as well. Our college will continue to solicit those. And together, we can transform our future in education and industry. Systemic change is needed. It will not be immediate. It may even seem counter-intuitive at times. Nevertheless, we can craft a better system for our children and grandchildren, if education, industry, government and communities will come together and prioritize future success over past practices and educational biases.