Are young Germans now spurning apprenticeships?

From the FT, Chris Bryant reports:

…in Germany, growing numbers of school leavers are choosing to go to university instead of starting an apprenticeship, triggering alarm that small businesses will struggle to fill skilled positions.

…The number of young Germans starting an apprenticeship declined 4 per cent last year to 530,700, the lowest level since German reunification in 1990. Some 33,500 apprenticeships went unfilled, the most since 1996.

…The reasons for the falling number of apprentices are hotly debated. Partly it reflects demographic trends: there are fewer young people around today than when the baby boomer generation came of age.

Studying for an undergraduate degree has become more attractive, in part because it no longer takes so long. German students can obtain a bachelor’s degree in just three years, instead of five years for the old-style diploma.

Almost 500,000 Germans began a university degree last year, compared with fewer than 360,000 a decade ago. Nevertheless, around one-quarter of German students break off their studies prematurely and do not graduate at all.

Meanwhile, trade unions accuse cost-conscious companies of offering an insufficient number of apprenticeships, and point to an increase last year in the number of young people who were unable to find one.

Jutta Rump, director of the Institute for Employment and Employability (IBE) in Ludwigshafen, said there had indeed been a “cannibalisation” of vocational training via increasing university attendance.

The Germans can’t quite seem to extend a model that everyone else is falling in love with and trying to copy…

For the pointer I thank Jim Olds.


This is anecdotal, but I remember speaking with a couple of Germans about the apprenticeship track, and they didn't seem to think too highly of it. People who went into those tracks tended to have higher unemployment rates than people who went into the university track. Granted, this was about 5-6 years ago, so maybe things have changed - and unemployment in general was high in Germany until they allowed greater use of temp workers.

Things haven't changed :) The word "Fachkräftemangel" (literally "skilled-lobor-shortage") is something you hear at least once a day in Germany. It's as common in our talkshows and newscasts as the word "Obamacare" in the US. But this word alone maybe even driving more and more school grads into universities. Because what it doesn't deliver is were that skills are coming from.

I'd propose a new word that says "experienced-worker shortage" like "Routiniermangel"

In Baden-Württemberg, the Duale Hochschule is a response to this.

The reason for this are the economics of status (and fear).

Over time, more and more parents and school graduates will opt for the path that suggests cooler jobs and less fear of being unemployed/low-paid. This suggestion is fed by the experience that university diploma holders get the coolest jobs, get the best pay and have the lowest unemployment rate of all education levels. Problem is, that experience was made when a university diploma was a rare thing to have.

I did both, the apprenticeship and the university. Looking back, factors that allowed me to enter a higher income bracket were:
1. Work experience in time
2. a hand full of key skill-and-education-generating moments
3. choosing a profession that I like

All three factors are multiple times better addressed through an apprenticeship than university. But this I can only say because of my experience, which you don't have as a graduate from school. Parents could give advice, but their view might be flawed as well (because of status and fear). And if not, you still may dismiss their good advice (because of status you want and fears you have).

Fearing I'd be chained to uncool jobs for life, I did choose the university because of the expected return in income and quality of life. It delivered none. Except for the wisdom, that people who hold diplomas deserved none of the status I used to attribute them
(high status professionals like lawers, MDs or justices after years have yet failed to change that perception).

"Status" will always get a hearing on this blog, but it doesn't explain why things changed so rapidly in recent years.

Status could certainly explain it. Or, more accurately, a growing cost of living which makes it harder to live as your parents did. It's always been expensive to live in Germany. Increasing costs lead students to seek higher-paying jobs out of necessity. Vocational students cherry-pick the few high-paying options, like plumbing or electrical work, creating a glut.

Does free labor movement within EU contribute also? The competition from Romanian plumbers & Polish welders etc. must be rather stiff?

'Vocational students cherry-pick the few high-paying options'

Or, instead, since many Handwerker jobs are well paid enough (in distinction to jobs at a Mercedes plant, which is quite well paying by any measure), they become a Meister - but that would be a very complicated discussion.

What change? It was a steady inflation. In Germany, there are three levels of school grads (ca. 9 years, 10 years, 12/13 years or "Abitur"). Only the highest grad-class, can get university admission. The First inflation happened there: More and more parents wanted the kids to graduate first-class. In 1950 5% of all students graduated with an Abitur. In 2010 it were 49%. In return, students who graduated with 9 years education in 1950 could easily find an apprenticeship. Today, graduating after 9 years comes close to the US equivalent of a high school drop out. You have a hard time to not come across as stupid, so bad is the stigma attached.

'Only the highest grad-class, can get university admission.'

Not precisely. One of the programmers I work with is a woman who left school at 16 to work for the Bundespost (late 70s). She decided to go back to university a couple of years later, and earned her Diplom.

The flexibility within an educational system that seems so rigid (and not the same through the Federal Republic, it must be noted) makes it very, very difficult to make blanket statements about German education. Including the changes made over the last 15 years.

This is one area where I have some sympathy for American observers - it is difficult enough to figure out what is going on when you talk to a variety of people who went through the German system. And there really are social differences - the Beamte as a class come most prominently to mind, but trying to explain them is at least as hard.

But but but...

aren't the broad similarities (watering-down of University requirements plus an aspirational 'college for all' mentality) between the US and Germany at all worrisome?

Historically, the US has led in 'broadening of educational opportunities' and has now overshot by quite a bit, IMO. In this area, the lagging German model, including early sorting, may have been better suited for the 21st century, but y'all are abandoning it and trudging down the same misguided path as the rest of us.

It's not only a matter of stigma, there just aren't that many jobs left for the "equivalent of high school drop outs" as there were in 1950. Germany has quite a high level of automation and customers don't see a need for bag packers or shoe shiners.

The number of university beginners is greater partly because the time to graduation from gymnasium has been reduced in most parts of the country. Now the number of years of education till university is 12 instead of 13. I think there is currently a overlap caused by the change that should see a large onetime increase of university enrollment.

There certainly is, and it has been a real challenge to handle. However, I believe the switchover is by Bundesland, and did not occur at once throughout all of Germany. Admittedly, my experience of this is pretty much limited to Baden-Württemberg.

It is correct that the switchover is conducted on the state level and only in one or two states at a time but then again, 2011 and 2012 were the years when most larger states, like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, introduced them, so it's clustered in a very short time span of only a few years.

Additionally, the military draft has been suspended, which obviously also leads to more new university entrants in the switchover years.

I do wonder how one defines 'apprenticeship' and 'bachelor' in this context. For example, where I work, we use a number of Duale Hoschschule students - these are students who also earn a bachelor's degree (in engineering or Wirtschaftsinformatik, for example) by spending three months working as an employee, then the next three months in a classroom. Basically, a DH student earns a degree that is half practice in a company, and half theory in a classroom (which is a roughly equal balance to older style apprenticeships).

In other words, maybe the Germans have actually continued to develop their concepts - especially as this idea first developed from the Berufsakademie (a stilted translation would be 'academy of professions'). In Baden-Württemberg, roughly the same of students are enrolled in the DH as the missing number of apprentices in all of Germany - 34,000 for the school year 2013-2014.

Almost as if one of the world's leading manufacturing centers, particularly in such areas as industrial robotics and high quality machine tools, recognizes that the future will look different than the past.

And in typical German fashion (much like the labor market changes of the later 1990s bearing fruit now), have already developed a number of approaches to handle it.

And at least in this part of southern Germany, a large number of employers prefer DH graduates compared to 'normal' university students, since the DH students are already acquainted in what a company needs in terms of productive employees, having already had business experience.

But the point of the article is not completely wrong - Germany is leaving behind a model that is not all that relevant to a world where skilled employees require more schooling than in the past. Which may explain why 10,000 companies are partners in terms of providing the necessary practical component of the 'dual system.' Commenters might have heard of one or two of them - like a certain Stuttgart based vehicle manufacturer, or the world's largest ERP software company.

German only link -ürttemberg

"I do wonder how one defines ‘apprenticeship’ and ‘bachelor’ in this context. For example, where I work, we use a number of Duale Hoschschule students – these are students who also earn a bachelor’s degree (in engineering or Wirtschaftsinformatik, for example) by spending three months working as an employee, then the next three months in a classroom. Basically, a DH student earns a degree that is half practice in a company, and half theory in a classroom (which is a roughly equal balance to older style apprenticeships)."

This is the same model that's long been used by Kettering -- an engineering-oriented university in Michigan (it used to be called GMI). Mary Barra (the new CEO of General Motors) is a graduate.

"Duale Hochschule" is just an apprenticeship with a bachelor's degree instead of the standard certificate. It's a top notch apprenticeship nonetheless. But it's just a way to take the status desire of school grads into account, so companies can get the workers they need. The important part is the vocational experience not the title that you hold in the end.

Well, maybe - 20 years ago, a BA Diplom was not recognized outside of the Bundesland that granted it. Making it a choice which tended to be restricted to the place where it was granted.

Things change, of course.

Question from an ignorant foreigner. There seems to be 3 educational systems: universities, full time apprenticeships and the mixed approach classroom-apprenticeship (DH). The FT article is about unfilled full time apprenticeship the status quo slowly changing from full time apprenticeships to DH? I don't get Tyler's message, it was derogatory. Evolution does not mean failure.

As always, it depends. For example, many companies are only allowed to be in business when they have one or more Meister - car shops, electrical work, bakeries - the list is quite long. And definetely covers extensive parts of such companies as Siemens or Mercedes.

A basic requirement to becoming a Meister is having first been an 'apprentice.'

However, a significant amount of the modern German economy is not really about physical production - for example, due to its nature as a major exporter, Germany has a quite extensive shipping and packaging industry (along with the industry that provides the machinery for shipping and packaging - those companies will still need Meister in various areas, however, being part of the traditional manufacturing framework).

What that shipping and packaging industry needs are trained workers familiar with how to move something from the production location to the customer's. Such work requires a fair amount of knowledge - it does not, by most normal meanings of the term, require 'apprenticeship' (it does require training) The same applies to the companies that deliver the software to allow that shipping and packaging industry to function efficiently - and the list goes on. Mainly because much of this shipping is of the average is over variety - a refinery to India, for example. Or wind turbine components. Or printing presses. Or industrial robots. Or specialty chemicals. Or medical instrumentation. This list is quite long, as many companies in Germany may only produce 20 or 30 'units' a year - but when that unit is a heat exchanging core for a natural gas based chemical plant, along with all its control equipment, there is a lot of shipping involved in creating it, along with delivering it.

'I don’t get Tyler’s message, it was derogatory'

Well, the broad German system, especially the one created after the essentially complete physical destruction of Germany following WWII, is based on placing a high value on skilled labor, including that skilled labor having a political weight easily equal to that of the owners. A political weight that expresses itself in ways that tend to make some Americans very, very uneasy. Especially those with the idea that skilled workers are unnecessary, or easily replaceable with automation.

I get it now, things are changing to soon to tell the change is for good or not. Anyway, interesting.

That Apprenticeship worked great for them in their past doesn't mean it is automatically also the wisest strategy for their future. Maybe it's the naive economists blindly aping Germany that are getting it wrong? The astute Germans may be transitioning to better strategies that make more sense in today's world.

Is there a problem if the 1/4 of people who start university and don't finish later decide they want to do an apprenticeship, once they figure out college wasn't the best track for them? I would guess college is heavily subsidized -- do they have to pay anything back if they don't finish?

The problem is not with tuition - the problem is that going to university first pretty much excludes you from any 'apprenticeship' later.

The reverse is not true - a friend's daughter is being told that by her parents - one is a handsomely paid analyst with a physics PhD for a very large and very data intensive business (big data is very old hat in the financial services area), and her mother is a Berufsschule teacher.

Again, just anecdata, but in this part of southern Germany, which prides itself on being a high tech region, university degrees and PhDs are not seen as highly as one would think. Qualifications are what count - and many people with a degree from a university are distinctly unsuited for what companies require from employees. Hence, the advice from that set of university educated parents for the best path for their daughter to follow. She can always fall back on the skills she acquired as an 'apprentice,' which are more valuable than a degree in most contexts.*

*Various caveats apply, of course - including whether the profession you acquired is one with future demand.

I would subscribe 100% to those parents advice! :)

Having worked before I was able to make an income more easily while studying. And the working experience also helped me with my studies, having a better sense of prioritizing efforts than my counterparts.

The german minister of education, Johanna Wanka, just recently announced a brand new program of apprenticeships for college-dropouts to address this previously completely ignored issue.

There is no need to pay anything if you drop out. I guess that would also scare off too many prospective students in the first place, which wouldn't be good for the overall educational level in the country.

We are reaping what we have sown for more than 20 years.

This love for the german model is a very recent phenomenon, both outside of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, as well as within.

For decades, the experts from the OECD and other international institutions urged us to get rid of the dual education system. The US model of pushing everybody into college was to be imitated in order to succeed in the knowledge and service economy of the future. The elites adopted this view and the dual system was treated like the red headed stepchild of the education system. To defend this antiquated system was considered reactionary.

These kids have been told their entire lives that apprenticeships are for the pitiful who can't make it in modernity, for the "Modernisierungsverlierer" (losers of modernization). No wonder then that they choose college today.

Perhaps I skimmed too fast but I don't see mention in the comments: does all of this mean that Germany is now exporting college graduates to other EU member states? (or even farther afield)

Not exactly importing or exporting - that aspect, apart from specific concerns of German brain drain problems in specific fields like biotechnology, is not really part of this German discussion.

It is true that a number of German researchers find work outside of Germany, but this tends to be seen in a mainly academic light - as in it concerns universities, and not what most people consider the economy per se (that there is a likely longer term connection is understood by pretty much everyone).

"triggering alarm that small businesses will struggle to fill skilled positions"

More immigration! Turks and Syrians will be happy apprentices.

"Spurning" is a little strong.

A couple of remarks:

1. The fact that a quarter of students don't finish their degree isn't really that drastic considering being a student is quite attractive:
- no cost for health care if younger 26
- there are no (or little 1000 euros / year) fees

2. There are also mixed versions of doing a bachelors combined with vocational training (called dual studying ["Dualer Studiengang"]).
Examples would be someone doing a BSc in Finance and becoming a professional bank clerk at the same time. These degrees are often sponsered by firms, so students earn a small amount while studying and working at that firm during their holidays.
Probably more people start with those degrees nowaday, so that would have the above effect.

Living right across the German border I can tell you that we have had the very same situation in my part of the Netherlands starting about a generation ago.

I am sorry to say that the this problem was never solved and has become worse.

Pushing young people into higher education has led to a brain drain; they are leaving the Dutch provinces in droves for the economic heartland of Holland because there is little need for their skills at home. At the same time the lack of skilled workers is killing off our (German like) manufacturing industries at the borders.

You only have to look at the Netherlands to see what will happen in Germany a decade or two later. It has always worked that way.

Could it be the Germnay has over-produced blue-collar labor much like the US did in the 1960s through 1970s? So it is reasonable for people to follow the college trek.

Otherwise, since Germnay has such a low birth rate that they are following what happens in East Asia and Blue State America. Couples now have 1 - 2 children and they know the limitations of blue collar work and are pushing their precious kids to be bigger successes. Anyway Germany could go a long way here with Spanish, Italian or East Europe immigration.

Here's what my German husband had to say about it: there's a heavy element of "hauptschule is for the Turks," thus causing native German families to be all the more keen on avoiding it.

Interested in what the German commenters think of this, if any are still following the comments on this post.

Sounds rather silly, because (1) obviously immigrants' children like to go to university too and do so if they can, and (2) this suggests that 'native Germans' wouldn't mind refusing their children to go university if only it wasn't for the Turkish kids in 'Hauptschule'.

The truth is that almost whoever can go to 'Gymnasium' (the secondary school which leads to university) does so.

Maybe you can ask your husband why 'native Germans' don't mind going to 'Gymnasium' and university although there are many immigrants there?

I had to laugh when I read the FT's statement that more young Germans are going to university because the degrees have been shortened.

First of all, the previous degrees weren't necessarily long, but the time of completion depended on the student. I completed law school in 4 years, some of my classmates took 5 or 6 or 7 years. Many dropped out altogether. Before the introduction of the BA/MA system, students were much more flexible in how much workload they wanted to do each year, how many internships they wanted to do and so on.

As there are no (or almost no) tuition fees, German students really don't mind spending a few years at university. It's not like they are all eager to leave this time of extended adolescence behind and spend 35 years in an office.

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