Competition for school apprenticeships in Germany is so fierce that nearly 170,000 hopefuls will end their job search empty-handed. Yet one-fifth of those who do get placed wind up dropping out.
Hands-on experience is the key to Germany's training system
Some employers’ complaints: Trainees show up late, if at all. They dress inappropriately. They don’t know basic math and can’t string together a sentence.
The trainees see it differently. Employers are too strict; the work is dull. Or too taxing, and the hours stink. It wasn't what they expected.
It's a classic disconnect between employer and employee. And it leads to around 20 percent of all the hard-won training positions in Germany coming to an untimely close.
A dual system
First, some background: Germany has what is known as a "dual system" of education, where graduates of high schools and vocational schools take an official, paid apprenticeship, usually around three years in length. At the same time, they study classroom skills related to their profession. It is a time-tested route into the German job market for people in a wide array of vocations, from carpentry to graphic design to office administration.
Yet it doesn’t all work out perfectly. The numbers of lehrstellen, as these official, paid apprenticeships are called, are closely watched and reported on, since they mirror the health of the job market. This year, according to the German Labor Agency, the country is short some 169,000 apprenticeships.
Trainee at Bayer
So the dropout figures put out by the Ministry for Education and Research Job Training Study may come as a surprise to some. According to the study, some 21.9 percent of all apprentices throw in the towel before their time is up. Most, but not all, of them give up during the first several months of the apprenticeship, when the experience is considered a trial period on both sides.
For Wolfgang Liebernickel, who is in charge of training and apprenticeships for the German Association for Mid-sized Companies (BVMW), the problem starts in the schools.
The biggest problem that he sees is that young people need to be able to learn how to gracefully occupy the lower rungs of the workforce ladder.
"You get someone in a kitchen who is learning to be a cook, and he wants to make wonderful dishes. But there are a lot of pots to wash and a lot of potatoes to peel," Liebernickel said. "It's not a time in their lives for leadership."
Lacking in skills
Another issue, one hotly debated on the political stage, is the skills high and technical school students possess. "Sometimes they can’t do basic math. They can’t write a sentence," Liebernickel said.
On top of that, there are social considerations -- applicants should learn how to behave in an interview. And "if they are going to be late, they should know to call first and say why," said Vera Lange, who heads up the apprenticeships and further training department at the Cologne Chamber of Commerce.
Trainee in the Deutsche Welle kitchen
Lange has a docket on her desk about someone who wanted to terminate an apprentice. "The apprentice was repeatedly sick but didn’t even bother calling. They just sent a text message."
The dropout rate is really upsetting, she said. "It's difficult for the young person, who will have a hard time finding something new in such a short time. And it's bad for the companies, because all the good candidates are already taken," Lange said.
A main reason for the high dropout rate, Lange said, is that students "hear a good name, like 'new media' and it sounds exciting. But then they get into it and decide it is too hard. Or its really boring."
Lange suggested students try to do internships during their high school years to get a better idea of the realities of the job.
Apprentice in an auto workshop
Carsten Israel of the Hamburg Foundation for Jobs said his pilot program -- which has been underway for four years now and has funding through 2006 -- works with schools and employers to prepare technical school students for the world of work.
The foundation tries to assess a student’s strengths and interests, then figure out which jobs would best suit him or her, and finally, help with the detailed and often brand new tasks associated with actual job hunting.
For Israel, the idea that students today are less prepared for the world of work than they once were, is "an unfortunate generalization."