Episode 31 – German dual vocational education system, USP & challenges

The German dual vocational education system and professional further education, which is also practiced in Austria and Switzerland, is a cornerstone for high quality and practice-orientated education and a key factor for the global competitiveness of German firms. The system is admired because it creates a lot of skilled workers according to the needs and the requirements of the firms and it is a main reason for low rates of youth unemployment. A big advantage of the system is, that people are getting educated according to the needs and requirements of the firms – practically everybody who participates in this system gains from it in comparison to a solely school-based system. The system also evolves and adapts content, that is highly relevant for working in a digital environment. Learning content of occupations, that is regulated by law (VET act, Ger: Berufsbildungsgesetz, BBiG) can be complemented by additional qualifications (for example occupations in the field of metal and electronic manufacturing can be complemented by modules like additive manufacturing, cyber security etc.). What also makes the system attractive is the transparent and legally accepted certification system that is supervised and organized by the chambers of industry and commerce and the chambers of crafts. Vocational schools are organized and regulated by state governments (in most cases) and provide unified quality standards – learning at school and at work is harmonized.

The main goal is to convey the basic competences for self-contained working in a certain profession.

Another important piece of the puzzle is the honorary based testing system. The „testers“ are employees, that work in a certain profession and bring explicit experiences and contribute on a honorary basis in testing committees that verify and judge the competences of the apprentices. The local guidelines are negotiated by a VET board that is organized by the chambers of industry and commerce (and crafts) – the board is structured and set up on a parity basis, including representatives of employers, unions and schools. The cooperation of all participating partners, marks the cornerstone of a system that is characterized by high quality, action-oriented and is internationally accepted.

VET – USP & Challenges

But there is a paradox situation in the domestic point of view concerning the VET system. Whereas the demand for VET applicants has reached an all-time high, the supply – meaning the young people – has been continuously shrinking over the past eight years. In parallel, the number of young people starting into academic career paths has been rising. Therefore, in 2015 there have been for the first time more people starting the first semester at a university than start learning a profession in the VET system. This development is alarming, because firms‘ demand for VET applicants is much higher than the supply. Of course, firms have a demand for academic skilled workers – but one has to consider, that firms‘ demand and the subjects / courses of studies that students chose are not harmonized and the quantitative demand for VET applicants is in total much higher. This leads to a mismatch. Where does it come from?

Where does this global development where young people tend to be more interested in academic career than in professional careers come from? From a domestic point of view, the dual apprenticeship system in comparison to the academic system has an image problem. It is important to show role-models of apprentices that they are proud to learn an occupation. Changing an image is a structural and long-lasting process, but it is important in this context. Therefore, chambers, government and local institutions are putting in a lot of effort, marketing activities, campaigns and projects. The chamber of crafts for instance is distributing commercials that are highly emotional – proud to practice a craft and produce an object with your own hands (“Manufaktur“). As young people have to make this very important career decision around the age of 16 to 17, they have to rely on the advice of their parents and friends. Therefore, the chambers of industry and commerce in Bavaria for example run a campaign where parents show their pride for their childrens’ professional career, which is also emotionally driven and authentic.

The „best“ choice has to fit to the competences, strengths and preferences of the young people.

This can of course be a course of study, but it can also be a professional career. High drop-out rates of over 30 percent in several courses of study show that people have not made the right choice for themselves. There are more points that have to be improved. There has to be more transparency in the education system – there has to be more awareness, that the education systems are open and that it is able to switch from academia to the professional world and vice versa. Moreover, there has to be more transparency concerning financial circumstances. Apprentices earn money (salary) from the first day and research shows that it takes around 20-30 years of time until academics catch up in life-time-earning – and in many cases, academics nowadays exceed professionals. Concerning job security, VET applicants have the benefit that they can already convince their employers to keep them at the firms, after finishing the VET final exams.

The VET system is an important element of the German education system – it is the foundation for professional skilled workers that are needed in order to stay competitive and innovative. It is important to improve the image and transparency on a domestic level in order to induce a transition towards a balance between the academic and vocational system.

For more details, listen to the Podcast and look up Prof. Zwick`s website (https://www.wiwi.uni-wuerzburg.de/en/lehrstuhl/bwl7/team/prof-dr-thomas-zwick).