Germany Combats Youth Unemployment with Vocational Training

Robert Coe

Robert Coe is a full-time intern at AICGS during Spring 2014, where his duties include writing the AICGS Notizen Daily, assisting with the contact database, summarizing AICGS events, and contributing to the AICGS Notizen Blog. He is particularly interested in the Foreign and Domestic Policy Program at AICGS.

Mr. Coe double majored in Political Science and German Linguistics at Michigan State University, recently graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the fall of 2013. Mr. Coe spent his junior year studying abroad in Freiburg im Breisgau, taking classes at Albert-Ludwigs Universität. A bilingual speaker, he hopes to channel his education into the field of international relations.

In Germany, the unemployment rate today is lower than it was at the beginning of the recession in 2008. The country has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU—around 5.2 percent, if you believe Google. What is particularly remarkable about Germany’s unemployment rate is how much the youth contribute to these favorable statistics. The jobless rate among persons under 25 years of age hovers around 16 percent in the United States, 20 percent in the United Kingdom, and a staggering 50 percent in Spain and Greece. This same demographic in Germany is currently below 8 percent.

How is this possible? What are the Germans doing that these other countries are not? Well, much of this success exists thanks to Germany’s now time-tested model of apprenticeships and work-study programs.

The German economic model depends more and more on career training, rather than purely academic university education. This popular alternative is “apprenticing,” not exactly a new concept—in fact it’s medieval—but the German form is modernized and innovative. It comes from a partnership between universities and businesses that allows students to spend their time alternating between working for a firm and attending classes at university during other parts of the year. Around 60 percent of German high school students will enter into some kind of apprenticeship and around 80 percent of participants will finish their programs. This means that over half of young Germans are completing some kind of apprenticeship within 342 different recognized trades. Apprenticeships can pay for school time as well as living costs in many cases.

This is a tremendously effective way for students to find a structured, planned route into a specific trade, as well as for companies to train future employees in-house, rather than search for workers who already possess specific skills.

Recognizing its effectiveness, other countries are starting to catch on to this trend. At face value, this approach appears to provide a much more straight-forward path to a career, as well as economic benefits in the long run. Areas in the United States, such as South Carolina, are experimenting with work-study apprenticeships, training university and community college students for positions in local manufacturing operations. After a trade mission to Germany, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan has helped to implement his own apprenticeship program for students with nine different companies in the heavily industrial southeastern region of Michigan. Across the Atlantic, students from the UK are doing full-time, all-expenses-paid apprenticeships in Germany.

In praise of the German apprenticeship system, Eoghan Harris of the Irish Independent posited that it is “[f]ar better to give these young people skills training instead of coercing them to do college courses, where they learn to become critics, rather than creators.” This is an astute and obvious sentiment that can be drawn from the comparison of these two forms of education, but criticisms of work-study also exist. For instance, could training for a specific job leave one unprepared for change when that job no longer exists? Is there intrinsic value in a traditional university/college education that apprenticeships cannot offer? We might find out, if German-style apprenticeships start to become more economically and politically viable, and therefore more common, in the United States.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.