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).
“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.