While many European countries struggle with high youth unemployment, Germany is experiencing lower rates than seldom before. There is more to these promising figures than just the country’s strong economy.
Things looked very different back in 2005, when a Bertelsmann Foundation study predicted that youth unemployment, already high at over ten percent, was likely to worsen. The survey identified failures in education and vocational training as contributing factors. The tide soon turned though, and youth unemployment was almost halved by 2016. Experts attribute this turnaround to the flexibility of the German dual vocational training system. We spoke to Guido Kirst, head of the Vocational Orientation Programme at the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), about the advantages of this system and about programmes for young adults with learning disabilities.
In contrast to many other European countries, youth unemployment is quite low in Germany. What could be the reason for this?
In Germany, youth unemployment is currently around five to six percent, while half of all young people have been out of work at times in some countries in Southern Europe. We attribute this to our dual training system, which is closely linked to the needs of the labour market.
You are referring to vocational training that takes place at two venues, a company and a vocational school. In dual vocational training, apprentices learn on the job and also attend vocational school for several weeks at a time to learn theory.
Only Austria and Switzerland offer the same combination of school-based and in-company training. One important advantage of this system is that the job descriptions and training courses are not created in a vacuum. The private sector, trade unions, academics and administrators come to the table and work together to adapt the job descriptions to fulfil existing need. This makes the training system very flexible, even if the demands made of skilled workers change rapidly. Groups of visitors come to the BIBB from all over the world to learn more.
Do they then adopt the same model?
It is not that simple. The dual system is not transferable to every country, and would sometimes involve adopting a whole new system. It is hard enough just to convince people that trainees should be paid, for example. We point out that trainees contribute to a company as they learn. And there is no better way for a firm to find the skilled workers it needs than to train them in-house.
Five to six percent may not seem like much compared to Southern Europe, but Germany’s economy is booming. Shouldn’t youth unemployment be even lower here?
That is primarily due to regional conditions. Trainee positions don’t always match demand. And the trainee and student age group is not very mobile. We have also noticed a more recent trend; the perception of the apprenticeship market has shifted. Many young people are convinced they will get an apprenticeship in a highly regarded profession, even if they are not really qualified for it. They could easily find a spot in a different field, but often don’t apply anywhere else because they are holding out for something better. Some go empty-handed in the end.
Educator Guido Kirst has worked for the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) since 2007. | Photo: © BIBB
The private sector complains about a lack of maturity among would-be trainees. Is that true?
First of all, it is important to note that while there is a lot of talk about the level of maturity trainees need, this is not a clearly defined entity. Academic performance has improved, for example, and the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) reports that young people are doing better in German and mathematics. In addition, one third of companies already offer private tutoring to close any knowledge gaps. But companies are also paying closer attention to social skills and finding a lot of weaknesses. They complain that young people lack stamina, aren’t willing to work hard, and have a low tolerance for frustration. These are crucial skills that have to be practiced at home. You can’t just blame it on the schools, which are undergoing lots of changes. Self-organized learning models are replacing the teacher-centred approach, and grades are no longer as important as they used to be.
What are some successful integration programmes that have helped to reduce youth unemployment in problem regions?
There are a whole host of projects, like assisted training, which came out of a successful pilot project in Baden-Württemberg. Counsellors give young people with learning disabilities and social disadvantages comprehensive support both in school and in their personal lives. They help them find a suitable apprenticeship and solve personal problems as well. A company can call in the counsellor if the young person is struggling. Firms really value this kind of mediation. Young people also receive support in starting a career. The objective is to make sure that they stick it out and finish school, so they can successfully begin vocational training. Additionally career entry counsellors help trainees stay on the ball during the first six months of training.