Two-thirds of all 16-year-old school leavers in Germany take a work-based route to higher education and do apprenticeships, says John Berkeley, Rover Group Senior Fellow at Warwick University. This compares with about 10% in the UK, he says. And in Germany, engineering is one of the most popular trades.
Berkeley says that in the UK, the work route is seen by schools and parents as second best compared with staying on in higher education. ‘We regard training for employability as only for those unable or unwilling to stay on in academic full-time education,’ he says. ‘This is the exact antithesis of the attitude in Germany, where the work-based route is seen as the route to success.’
Most people in Germany in all trades have been through a rigorous, highly regulated, work-based training scheme. The system assumes trainees have little or no knowledge and puts more emphasis on teaching. As a result, apprentices can spend the first two years of their course away from the factory at college. In the UK, apprenticeships have a much higher emphasis on demonstrating practical skills.
In Germany, work-based training is perceived as an economic necessity, says Berkeley. ‘Until the recent economic downturn, the number of training places offered by employers exceeded the number of youngsters wanting places.’
Heller, a German-owned machine tool manufacturer based in Redditch, near Birmingham, has taken in some of this German attitude to apprenticeships. Of its UK workforce of about 130, there are 10 apprentices. They are taken on at the age of 16, and the company has a good record of retaining them. It says that by the age of 25, they are technically extremely competent.
Heller has built a close relationship with local schools and colleges, and gets students to come in on work experience. Despite this, production manager Steve Watson says there is still a shortage of the right candidates: ‘There’s not enough understanding in schools of what engineering is, and it can be difficult to attract good people,’ he says. In 1997, Heller did not take on any apprentices, ‘because we did not find any good enough. That was the first time that had happened in 12 years,’ Watson says.
The German apprenticeship system also has faults. Heller sales engineer Peter Schaeffer did his apprenticeship 10 years ago with Daimler-Benz under a scheme which saw students do a three-year apprenticeship in parallel with the equivalent of A-levels. Like many candidates who take this route, he went on to university. ‘The company wants people to reach a high level of knowledge, so it trains them for three years,’ he says, ‘and then many go on to do a degree, with no guarantee that they’ll return to the company afterwards.’
Berkeley criticises the German system for its inflexibility and narrow specialisations. ‘They don’t have an engineering apprenticeship as in the UK, they have dozens of very specialised ones such as vehicle painting,’ he says. Also, the system is bureaucratic and it can take years to modify a programme, despite the rapid pace of technological change.
‘The German system badly needs reform. But its strength is that it is deeply rooted in German society and respected and sought after.’ For Germany, skills shortage problems may be a thing of the future.