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Global education lessons: Germany’s respected voc-tech path with Meisters

In Germany, more than half of all students take vocational training – and for those not ready, an intensive pre-apprenticeship program "rescues" youths by helping them identify a profession and prep to work with a serious Meister.

By Isabelle de Pommereau/ Correspondent / September 1, 2013

Jörg Stuhlmann gave up his own bakery to teach at the Bergius Vocational College. Germany’s respected vocational system educates more than half of all students.

Ralph Orlowski/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Polish immigrant Mateusz Pintek's German life turned around a few months ago on the day he brought home a strawberry tart, crafted with his own hands. His mother loved it. The praise washed away the bad memories, the school failures.

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After arriving from Poland in 2010, Mateusz, then 14, ended up like many immigrant youth: lost. Finding it hard to make himself understood in a foreign language, he dropped out of school. With no school certificate and thus no possibility of getting an apprenticeship, the door to Germany's famous vocational training remained closed.

But Germany's educational rescue program kicked in. Accepted last year into a one-year pre-apprenticeship training class at a vocational college that specializes in the hotel and gastronomy professions, the teen literally put his hands in the mix. By measuring sugar and mixing dough in a prep class, Mateusz started to make sense of theoretical concepts. Two internships at local bakeries – part of the program – raised his interest in the profession. When he graduated from the prep class in July, at age 16, Mateusz had found a vocation, and he also had a ticket for a future: a middle school certificate and a three-year bakery apprenticeship contract.

"He learned that, even if he didn't make it in school, he can be useful to society," says Jörg Stuhlmann, Mateusz's baking teacher at the Bergius Vocational College prep class. "Society judges children on the basis of their grades. Here they make a product, something that tastes good, that people like. They get the chance to be praised for something they've done."

For a century, Bergius has taught middle school graduates to cook and clerk in Frankfurt's hotels and restaurants. It is one of 16 public vocational schools here that train youngsters in 365 officially recognized professions.

While most European nations try to track all students into college, Germany sends a majority to vocational training. Rooted in the guilds of the Middle Ages, the system offers training by – and, often, a job with – a Meister (professional).

"Most German company leaders or owners have gone through the system and are proud of it," says Jens Schneider, a University of Osnabrück sociologist. "Meisters used to be apprentices first, then journeymen, and now they own the shop; they are the guys doing the training."

Germany's education system tracks students by the age of 10 into one of three systems: the Gymnasium, for careers in academics; the Realschule, for white-collar jobs; and the Hauptschule, the trade-track school. For a long time, early tracking worked. Indeed the Hauptschules produced the specialized workforce that rebuilt the country after World War II and still feeds the strong small-business economy. Vocational training in Germany, unlike in most of Europe, is a respected, solid alternative to the traditional university path.

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