Germans question traditional means of learning a job

In the US and Germany, economic realities drive new approaches to vocational education.

Janine Frisch used to see painting as a job. But at the Philipp Holzmann School she's discovered a profession - and also a passion.

Like all pupils in Germany's specialized vocational system, Ms. Frisch learns both in school and on the job. And after she's through with her three years of training, she'll be able to tackle any painting job from a factory to a mansion.

"There's a lot more to the job than putting paint on a wall, It's varied, creative," says Frisch, who alternates one week in school with two weeks at a painting firm that specializes in historic structures. She can paint with a sponge, a spray, or a ruler, and draft client invoices. "And I've even discovered techniques I could apply to my own home," she says.

Perhaps no other country has so thoroughly integrated job training with actual hands-on experience. The apprenticeship system in Germany offers trainees three years of formal study combined with on-the-job learning in any of about 365 different trades ranging from bank clerks to telephone operators, car mechanics to beauticians.

This dual approach to education has become a model admired worldwide. It's also viewed as one of the tools that helped Germany recruit a highly skilled, specialized workforce and become a top economic power after the devastation of World War II.

But today some complain that Germany's once prized system is no longer living up to its goals. A downward economy has forced companies to scale back their paid trainee positions. Many German companies today are making do with a cheaper - albeit generally less highly trained - workforce.

This year, a third of young Germans seeking an apprenticeship - about 35,000 youths - didn't find one, according to the Institute of Vocational Training in Bonn.

The problem recently surfaced at the top of the political agenda.

Under pressure to fight youth unemployment and counter a shortage of skilled labor, the German government has now threatened to penalize companies that don't train. The proposed new law has created a storm of controversy, with unions hailing it even as critics decry it as counterproductive and bureaucratic.

The real problem, say employers, is that pupils no longer come to them ready to be trained, making apprenticeship programs much more difficult to administer.

"Our dual system has proved itself and we have to keep it," says Johannes Hilgendorf, a director at the Philipp Holzmann School, which specializes in construction professions, from roofing to car painting. "The problem is in our society. In the past, the main goal was to learn a trade. Today it's a secondary goal, next to entertaining and having friends."

Norbert Dieter, who took over the Frankfurt painting company started by his grandfather, sees hiring young apprentices as an investment in the future.

"If I don't train, then we won't have a qualified workforce for tomorrow," says Mr. Dieter.

Dieter knows from long experience. For three generations, his firm hired most of the young people it trained. Today, two of Dieter's six employees are apprentices.

On average, a trainee costs an employer more than $10,000 annually.

Businesses like his have to offer top quality, points out Dieter. "We're talking about top-class quality, and quality only comes with learning, and learning means training," he says. "Without trainees we can't reach quality."

But finding qualified trainees is getting harder and harder, say employers.

Many applicants now come to interviews with poor social skills, they complain. Some don't say good morning. Others can barely read the safety instructions on a can of paint, let alone read through a tax form, complain some employers.

They also don't have the same desire to work, say some. "Today's young people don't realize how precious an apprenticeship is," says Johannes Langer, a painting teacher at the Philipp Holzmann School. "They think everything's [owed] them."

Some also look askance at blue-collar apprenticeships with employers like bakers and butchers because they prefer more "prestigious" fields like banking, says Elizabeth Krekel, a researcher with the Institute of Vocational Training.

To many, the apprenticeship crisis is seen as a wake-up call to German society. Schools, they say, must do a better job of giving students basic skills in reading and writing. Families must work harder to instill in children an appreciation for hard work and discipline. That, experts say, is all the more important as German society has become more heterogeneous and more children start school without speaking proper German.

Some Germans argue that today's apprenticeships should be made easier and shorter. But supporters of the system argue that this German specialty should not be changed, as it teaches pupils not only a trade but also an attitude toward work and society.

"To be under pressure, to finish something, that's what life is all about," says Hans Herold, a teacher at the Philipp Holzmann School. "When kids fresh out of school have learned a trade, it means that, for three years, they've had to work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. They've learned what rhythm is, what the work universe is.

"When they're done with their training and people ask them, 'What did you learn?' they can say they've acquired a trade, that they've had to perform," Herold continues. "And that's different from saying, 'I jobbed here and there.' "

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