Dual Vocational Training in Europe An Export Winner “Made in Germany”

Apprentice in the workplace
Apprentice in the workplace | Photo (detail): © BIBB / Edmud Schenk

The dual vocational training system enables apprentices to attend a vocational school for two or three days, and for the rest of the week get the practical experience at the company. For quite some time prophets claimed the system was on its way out. Now it's enjoying an amazing comeback – all over Europe.

Bianca from Portugal, who did a traineeship in hotel management, was most definitely won over by the dual vocational training system, “You are often thrown in at the deep end and are confronted with tasks that you have never had to deal with before,” the young woman explains. Self-confidence, stamina and acting talent, she said, were the order of the day during her traineeship. Things you do not learn if you “stay at home with mother”. “I really have to say it always went down well and all of my employers were very impressed indeed when I told them about my training in Portugal.”

Multinationals as exporters of dual vocational training

Before the big German companies like AEG, Bosch and Miele introduced the dual vocational training system in Portugal, business know-how was taught by Portuguese teachers at vocational schools - on top of that, the courses were full-time. It was only at the end of the year that students were allowed to go on a two or three-month placement. The lack of skilled workers and specialists in the country, however, led to a rethink. According to Jörg Heinrich, head of professional training at the German-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, it was the big German groups, back in the 1980s, that asked the Chamber to make apprentice training in the country more practice-oriented.

The concept that was devised was known as the “Qualificação Inicial Dual” and was soon to be stamped with the well-known “DUAL” hallmark. The dual vocational training qualification, for example, for automotive sales representatives, industrial management personnel and mechatronics technicians is now recognised as being on the same level as the Portuguese qualification for university entrance. There is however just one snag, “ DUAL leads a lonely existence in Portugal for there are only 850 graduates a year who successfully complete the course,” explains Steffen G. Bayer from the DIHK (German Chamber of Commerce and Industry).

“Give them tools or they’ll take up arms”

In the wake of the financial crisis that has been plaguing Europe since 2008 unemployment amongst young people in Europe has risen on average to 23 percent. In Greece and Spain it is even higher - way over 50 percent. Despite the crisis in Germany only eight percent of young people are out of work. Policy advisor, Jürgen Männicke, when speaking at the German Parliamentary Committee for Education and Research, was justifiably concerned that in those countries with a high unemployment rate amongst young people the situation could lead to “disastrous social tensions”. Qualified professional training would contribute positively to maintaining the social stability of a country. “Give them tools, otherwise they’ll soon be have Kalashnikovs in their hands,” as Männicke says.

Just how dual, however, is vocational training in Europe? The classic countries for the promotion of dual training in Europe are Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands; according to the Federal Institute for Vocational Training these countries have introduced the system on a grand scale. In Germany 60 per cent of all trainees and apprentices partake of the dual system. According to the Rhein-Neckar Chamber of Commerce and Industry there are also a few isolated approaches towards dual vocational training in Belgium, Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia, Hungary and England. Nevertheless in most European countries it is still the rule that apprentices attend full-time courses. “The full-time school model, however, does not have a future because it no longer focuses on the needs of the market,” says Bayer from the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Dual vocational training - a real “export hit”

“The German dual vocational training system has developed into a real export hit,” as German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, recently stated at a conference entitled “German businesses – Pioneers of the dual system of vocational training abroad” that was held in spring 2013. The system is a guarantee that skilled workers have been properly trained and that unemployment amongst young people remains low. In the meantime even the OECD has come round to this way of thinking and has recommended the USA take a look at Germany or Switzerland as the dual vocational training system in those countries has brought about some real benefits.

In view of the great demand the German Federal Ministry of Education has already concluded more than 40 international cooperation agreements - with countries such as Algeria, Greece, Portugal and even the USA. In order to cater for all this international activity the Ministry set up a central department for cooperation in the field of vocational training. Furthermore 80 chambers of foreign trade have helped the federal government to transfer its expertise on practice-related vocational training to other countries. Dual vocational training is also advocated and promoted by the EU. “Apprenticeships and placements can pave the way for young people to enter the labour market and are therefore helpful in tackling the incredibly high unemployment rate amongst young people in Europe.” says László Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

Sending out a message to employers

According to Holger Seibert from the Nuremberg Institute for Employment Research, the qualifications gained sent out a “very strong message to employers”, as the graduates had to take the exams at the chambers of trade and industry. After completing their apprenticeship between 50 and 60 per cent of the apprentices were taken on by their companies. As the employers have the opportunity to “test” the apprentices during the apprenticeship, the qualifications give a clearer picture of just how productive the graduates actually are.

On the other hand, Seibert says, a number of conditions have to be fulfilled before a dual training system can be set up: legislation, occupational and training regulations and effectively networking chambers. Legislation, for example, has to define the content and structure of the training course and standardise it countrywide, occupational and training regulations have to determine what the job being trained for actually involves. The chambers of trade and industry are necessary to ensure the courses maintain a certain standard and also to organise the state exams. Setting all this up however costs a lot of time - and a lot of money. “I doubt, however, whether all the countries in Europe are going to adopt the German dual system in the near future,” resumes Steffen Bayer. It is hard to motivate companies that are struggling to survive - to get them to put money into training, even if it is a useful investment.

At least crisis-ridden Spain is on its way to becoming “dual”. In the middle of 2012 Seat became the first Spanish company to adopt the dual system. A condition for this was a labour market reform initiated by the government that allowed companies to integrate apprentices to a much greater degree in the work of the company. If the intentions of the government are anything to go by, in future this is to become the rule in as many companies as possible.