The proud tradition of German apprenticeships is under threat with the shortfall of trainee spots expected to hit 70,000 this autumn. But suggestions to fine firms that fail to offer more has sparked sharp criticism.
Traveling carpenter's apprentices have become a rarer sight in Germany.
Young men travelling the German countryside dressed in the traditional clothes of the "Zimmermann", or carpenter's apprentice, as their predecessors have for centuries, used to be a common sight in Germany. Their decline in recent times is, in part, evidence of a wider problem plaguing Germany's skilled trades.
The country, once renowned and respected for its apprenticeship programs is facing a crisis as more and more young people seek in vain for traineeships as electricians, tailors and bakers. It is a situation that may force the German government into drastic measures.
With 70,000 young people expected to have trouble finding an apprenticeship this year, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has threatened the business community with fines if more spots where not created voluntarily by autumn.
But Germany's Economic and Labor Minister Wolfgang Clement on Tuesday rejected a "education fee" for companies for now, urging instead for companies to make room for new trainees on their own. He said chambers of commerce, employment associations, unions and business community needed to engage themselves fully to find a solution.
Economic and Labor Minister Wolfgang Clement.
"We have to mobilize everything that we back to create more apprenticeships," Clement told ZDF television. "Whether or not it will work, I can't say."
Germany’s trade unions have said they expect Schröder to implement the compulsory fee if firms fail to provide enough traineeships. Joachim Koch-Bantz, the head of division for Training and Qualification at the German Federation of Trade Unions, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper it was an "untenable situation" that two-thirds of Germany companies do not train their own staff.
Clement against fee for now
Clement said that companies would be responsible for financing their own training programs and that the investment of taxes in the creation of places would for the time being not come into consideration. The government would continue in financing education but would not extend its support to skilled trades.
Trainee electronics engineer.
"The companies must know that with the apprenticeships they are securing their own future,” Clement said.
But the latest push by the government to get Germany working and to build a future of economic stability around a well-trained, solid workforce has caused further disquiet within already despondent industry circles. Many dissenting voices believe that the government is wrong to force them to create positions for young apprentices when the state of the economy is such that many cannot even hold onto their trained staff.
Dieter Philipp, president of German skilled trades association, told the Berliner Zeitung the legal compulsory measures, such as an apprenticeship fee or levy, would only damage the system’s infrastructure by putting unnecessary strain on it.
Philipp said Clement's plan to virtually eliminate the time-honored tradition of the Meisterbrief or master craftsman’s diploma, which will allow ambitious journeymen to set up shop without the prestigious qualification, was partly to blame for firms' reluctance to take on new trainees.