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The Wander Years

The Wander Years

Vocational training remains the largest section of Germany’s educational and training system

By Gerhard Bosch

Back in the 1950s, many OECD countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States of America, had well-developed workplace-based apprenticeship systems. Alas, these systems declined over the subsequent decades, a demise closely linked to the dispute between craft unions, which seek to protect the ambit of their craft or trade, and companies, which wish to deploy their workforce more flexibly and efficiently.

Things were different on the Continent. During the latter decades of the twentieth century, German-speaking countries as well as Denmark went down their own particular paths, developing so-called “dual-training” systems. Here, training took place in both the workplace and in vocational schools, not in either one exclusively. Moreover, these so-called “social partners”—rather than the state—jointly drew up the regulations governing the various occupations and became responsible for administering and evaluating final examinations that marked the official end of an apprenticeship.

Over the last two decades, vocational training has become the largest element of Germany’s entire education and training system. In 2017, roughly 700,000 young adults began a vocational training course. In contrast, roughly 500,000 students embarked on higher education. Of the 700,000 vocational trainees, approximately 500,000 of them entered the dual system in the skilled crafts and trades, manufacturing industry, or service sectors; the remaining 200,000 began school-based vocational training programs or embarked on apprenticeships in education or health-related occupations. Training in education and health-related occupations is characterized by a high share of practical, on-the-job learning and close attachment to training institutions, such as hospitals, and is therefore similar to the dual system.

So, what of vocational training today? Does it facilitate access to a well-paid job or lead to a dead end? The answers to this question from academic studies could hardly be more different. On the one hand, the German system is admired throughout the world. Many international comparative studies have shown that youth unemployment in countries with a dual vocational training system is lower than in countries with predominantly school-based or academic systems. A company-based vocational training system assures that individuals who decide to discontinue their schooling are not outsiders to the German labor market. Company-based training has also made a meaningful difference in times of economic struggle and is thus a self-evident obligation for politicians, works councils, and trade unions to support. In the 2008-09 financial crisis, for example, more than 500,000 new training contracts were established in Germany, despite the massive economic slump. That is a rather astounding number, considering that many young people in other countries found themselves excluded from the labor market entirely. Germany’s investment in the future paid off: the country recovered quickly from the crisis and had the skilled workers it required in order to be able to meet rising demand quickly.

A company-based vocational training system assures that individuals who decide to discontinue their schooling are not outsiders to the German labor market.

International comparative studies have also demonstrated the advantages of having a reservoir of highly skilled workers in German companies. A 2011 paper on comparative apprenticeship by a team of researchers headed by Paul Ryan, of King’s College Cambridge, noted that 84% of production workers in the German machine-tool industry were skilled workers, compared with only 52% in the United Kingdom. This enabled German companies to restrict the share of employees in the first level of management (master craftsmen/technicians/supervisors) to 4%, compared with 11% in the UK. Several, mainly German-British comparisons of companies with similar products have shown that the German companies were able, because of their high shares of skilled workers, to specialize in high-value products. Productivity was also increased as a result of more efficient plant utilization.

Similar results can be seen in the service sector. Vocational training in the retail sector enables sales staff in Germany, in contrast to their counterparts in France, the UK, or United States, to take over management functions, such as ordering goods, so that fewer supervisors are needed.  In short, well-trained skilled workers can be regarded as the secret of Germany’s competitiveness.

But there, of course, are other takes on the matter. The German vocational training system has been described by sociologist Arne L. Kalleberg as “rigid” and “highly specialized,” in his 2018 book Job Insecurity and Well-Being in Rich Democracies. A decade prior, a Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung-sponsored study presaged his findings, suggesting that German workers possessed an inadequate share of general skills. This is worrisome, since it is precisely at times of rapid technological change that such general skills become more important, and change can be managed only with extensive background knowledge that is not highly specialized.

This brings us to recent prognoses about the replacement of some vocational occupations by digital technologies: they are frequently based on implicit assumptions that vocational training, in contrast to academic education, largely prepares young people for easily substitutable routine occupations. In a 2013 Oxford Martin School Working Paper entitled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization?,” authors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne predict that 47% of all jobs will be lost in the next twenty years. According to their forecasts, in virtually all the occupations for which training is provided within the dual system, between 80% and more than 90% of employees could be replaced by new technologies.

There have, of course, been many additional studies, from McKinsey to various government agencies, but this seemingly universal prognosis ignores that the tasks carried out within an occupation differ from country to country. It makes a big difference whether training to become a bricklayer, for example, lasts one year, as in the UK and Italy, or up to 3.5 years, as in Germany or Denmark, where skilled workers are able to read architectural drawings. They plan and carry out their work autonomously and coordinate with the other trades without any intervention from their supervisors. This makes a difference as to what becomes automated and what does not, because the logic of profit plays a significant role in decisions about efficiency. With regard to vocational training, it is the social partners who decide whether to modernize old occupational profiles and to create new ones. In Germany, technical support is provided by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BiBB) in Bonn, which deploys so-called early warning systems in order to analyze the changes in and emergence of new skill requirements on a continuing basis.

As early as the 1970s, there was consensus that vocational training should not simply impart specific skills, which could rapidly become out of date during technological upheavals. Rather, the necessary knowledge and skills should be imparted within broadly based basic occupations, in order to enable workers to understand the changes taking place in a particular occupational area and to further develop their own skills. In the first wave of reforms, which lasted into the 1990s, many related occupations were merged to have broader application. In 1987, for example, 45 metalworking occupations were fused to form 16 newly defined occupations. In 2004, in a second wave of reforms, the 16 metalworking occupations were merged to form four core occupations, in which 50% of the core skills imparted over the entire training period were common to all four occupations.

Initially, the process of modernizing occupational profiles took several years to complete. Spurred by the comprehensive reorganization of German companies in the wake of their adoption of Japanese approaches to production management (also known as “lean production”), the social partners agreed in 1995 to accelerate the redevelopment processes. As a result, the pace of modernization was significantly increased. By 2018, the number of occupations, which in 1950 was as high as 901, had fallen to 325. In the years from 2009 to 2018 alone, a total of 132 training occupations were reformed. Of these, 124 were modernized and six were newly created.

The debate about Industry 4.0 has led to a further review of occupational profiles. In the metalworking and electrical engineering occupations, for example, the social partners have agreed on agile reform procedures. They have undertaken to conduct regular reviews and to make larger or smaller adjustments as necessary. For the training occupation of industrial mechanic, for example, the ability to “apply regulations relating to data protection and information security” was recently added to the occupational profile. The full profile for the skills and competencies for a state-recognized training in the occupation of “industrial mechanic” includes the following:

  • Organize and check production and manufacturing processes
  • Make structural components and subassemblies and assemble them to produce technical systems
  • Identify and document faults and their causes in technical systems
  • Repair technical systems
  • Retrofit machines and systems
  • Complete maintenance work and inspections
  • Select testing procedures and testing equipment
  • Deliver technical systems and products to customers and provide instructions in the use of the plant
  • Ensure the functionality of technical systems
  • Monitor and extend electrical control components
  • Consider business processes and apply quality management
  • Act autonomously in completion of activities taking into account relevant regulations and safety provisions
  • Coordinate work with upstream and downstream departments
  • Set up workstations
  • Communicate with internal and external customers in a manner appropriate for the situation; work as part of a team
  • Check and document maintenance and assembly work with due regard to company quality management systems.
  • Use IT systems, including in digitalized processes
  • Apply regulations relating to data protection and information security.

In view of the rapid pace of technological change, occupational profiles are wisely technology-neutral. They describe the activities of an occupational area but not the specific technologies, which can change, sometimes very rapidly. Training cannot really be successfully modernized unless firms are innovative and provide their trainers with advanced instruction and, at the same time, vocational school teachers are given further training and the facilities in the vocational schools are brought up to date.

In view of the rapid pace of technological change, occupational profiles are wisely technology-neutral. They describe the activities of an occupational area but not the specific technologies, which can change, sometimes very rapidly.

After each wave of modernization – including the current one linked to Industry 4.0 –asynchronicities between firms increase. Those that are not current initially have trouble in providing training in accordance with the modernized curricula. Vocational schools play a major role here, particularly for small and medium-sized firms. In these schools, and in the state-financed inter-company training centers in the craft trades sector, trainees gain an understanding of modern technologies and in many cases initiate modernization projects in their companies. Moreover, changes in teaching methods have been just as important as the revision of training program content.

Vocational training today is no longer intended to prepare trainees to work within hierarchical modes of work organization with traditional divisions of responsibility, but rather to socialize them into working increasingly autonomously within flexible forms of work organization. In this sense, both vocational training and examinations follow actual business processes. The various waves of modernization that have taken place in recent years—and that will continue in the years to come—have made the dual system fit for Industry 4.0.


Gerhard Bosch is a professor of sociology at the Universität Duisburg-Essen, where he is the director of the Institute for Work, Skills, and Training (IAQ), and a senior fellow at the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung. Bosch was a participant in the December 2019 Richard C. Holbrooke Workshop “The Effects of Automation on Employment, Wages, and Inequality in Germany.”

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