What we do here is to learn about the interaction between complex technical processes in mechanics, IT and electrical engineering,” explains 19-year-old apprentice Alina Heib. She wants to become a “mechatronic technician” – a specialist both in operating machines and dealing with their electronic control systems. Heib has been thinking about her field of specialty since 10th grade: “At that time, I was planning on studying directly after high school. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that it would be better to get practical exposure in my field.”

The apprentice is learning and working at German engineering giant Bosch. The conditions of her apprenticeship are state of the art: With the help of augmented reality, she learns how to navigate robots on the factory floor – though in a special area reserved for apprentices – she is also being trained in more traditional metalworking. Another highlight has been to spend three weeks in another Bosch factory, says Heib: “That really broadened my horizons significantly.”

But this German teenager doesn’t only spend time at the factory. She also regularly attends classes: All apprentices in Germany spend roughly a third of their apprenticeship at special state-run schools called “Berufsschulen” (vocational colleges).  

Embedded learning

“The system is a very good combination of theory and practical work,” argues Heib. 

This is one of the special features of the German apprenticeship system, which trains young workers for jobs in every sector – from banking to hospitality, and IT to house building. It is also called the “dual system” as it combines schooling and working. In the 2016/2017 school year, almost 550,000 young people in Germany started an apprenticeship, versus close to 510,000 who went to university. The roots of the apprenticeship system go back to the times of the guilds in the Middle Ages, when clusters of tradesmen formed their syndicates and took in young people to teach them the trade. The modern German system was refined in the mid-20th century, when the German government codified training and schooling in close cooperation with business.  

Since then, there has been a special training plan for each of the 328 jobs covered by the system: and it has to be followed by every company and every “Berufsschule” in Germany. All the way through the three-year training period, the apprentices complete written exams and provide graded work samples. At the end, they get a special diploma called a “Gesellenbrief” and should be able to perform the same work at the same standard at any comparable company: Though up to two-thirds of apprentices stay at the company where they were trained, they are qualified to work anywhere. 

Government and business update the system regularly. As job descriptions change, so does the training: 20 years ago, Alina Heib would have trained to become an electromechanical technician – a job that doesn’t exist anymore and has been superseded by that of mechatronic technician. 

MACHINE LEARNING: Bosch apprentice Alina Heib completes her traineeship in the summer.

Many experts see the German apprenticeship system as a crucial underpinning of both Germany’s postwar economic miracle and its current status as an industrial powerhouse. “While the apprentice system has been lost in the Anglo-Saxon world during industrialization and left to expensive state institutions, it was kept intact in Germany to this day and helped to establish an industrial Mittelstand,” write business strategists Heiner Kübler and Carl A. Siebel, referring to the seemingly invincible layer of Germany’s small to medium-sized companies.  

While large companies such as Bosch could very well provide first-class training on their own, the thousands of small and medium-sized family firms that make up the Mittelstand both fuel the system and profit from it. These firms often have specialists whose sole job it is to train the young. And by being constantly alert to new training methods, the system also helps to implement the latest technology rapidly, right across industries.  

International envy

Interest in the apprenticeship system has been growing all over the world. Austria and Switzerland have long had a similar system, as have India, Australia and Canada. In 2013, Britain’s then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that apprenticeships would be the “new norm” for high-school graduates who don’t go on to university. The success has been sketchy, with the Local Government Association declaring the policy “failing” after just two years, mostly because of different labor relations and cultural forces. “The bedrock of Germany’s apprenticeship system is corporatism and restricted practice,” noted The Economist when the policy was first floated. In Great Britain, for example, only some skilled trades are regulated and need a license to practice. In Germany that is the norm – as is the apprenticeship as a “rite of passage” for a school leaver on their way to establishing an “occupational identity,” argues the Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive London think tank. 

Small wonder, then, that it’s mostly German companies such as BMW who are driving the effort overseas: In August 2016, the car manufacturer announced a $1 billion expansion at its largest factory globally, which is in Spartanburg, South Carolina – and with it an upgrade of their “BMW Scholars Program,” which will train an additional 40 percent more apprentices there. As there are no “Berufsschulen” in the U.S., BMW is partnering with local technical and community colleges.

While international institutions such as the OECD have for decades been scolding Germany for having too few academically qualified young people, the tide seems to be turning again: In their “Education at A Glance 2017” report, the Paris-based organization acknowledges that job prospects for apprentices are excellent – and on par with those of university graduates.

Alina Heib intends to do both: She’s set to complete her apprenticeship in the summer of 2018, and plans to study later. For her, it’s working out just fine. “You learn about mechanics, electronics and information technology and their interaction. And that enables you to understand complex technical processes. This is especially important for Industry 4.0. It’s the job of the future.” —  Margaret Heckel

Published: January 2018

Images: Ralf Barthalmes