BUSINESSMAN Jorg Ziegler depends on teenage apprentices to sustain the Berlin bookbinding company that has been in his family for 102 years.
"Without apprentices we don't have any specialized people," Mr. Ziegler says. "Specialists are vital to the quality and speed of our work."
The company constantly has four or five apprentices working in its bindery. After the three-year apprenticeship, nearly all trainees are offered permanent jobs.
Cornelia Voelker, a third-year apprentice at the company, has always wanted to be a bookbinder. "This was my dream job," she says. Ms. Voelker spends four days a week working in the bindery and one day at a state-run vocational school.
According to government regulations, Ziegler pays his apprentices a training wage that gradually increases during the three years. At the end of that period, Voelker will be required to demonstrate her skills through a written and practical national examination. Then she will be qualified to work as a bookbinder anywhere in Germany and will earn three times the training wage. Although Voelker is under no obligation to continue working for Ziegler after her apprenticeship, she hopes to perform well enough
to receive a job offer. "I'd like to stay here as long as possible," she says.
During the United States presidential campaign, President-elect Clinton frequently referred to Germany's centuries-old "dual system" of worker training as a model for the US to emulate. He is in favor of a national youth apprenticeship system and has pledged legislation providing $2 billion a year to apprenticeship programs in the US.
"We are surprised and pleased at American interest in our vocational-education system," says Friedrick Plickert, an official at the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Berlin. All German companies must pay dues to either this body or the Chamber of Trade and Craft, which oversee apprenticeships and enforce federal training standards set by business, labor unions, and the government.
Germany's dual system of work- and school-based training grew out of medieval craft and trade guilds. "It has a long-standing tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages here in Germany," explains Mr. Plickert. "Everybody is familiar with it, and it wasn't very difficult to keep it up through the centuries."
Today, 70 percent of Germany's work force comes through the dual system. About 20 percent of all German companies host the 1.6 million apprentices, who are being trained in 380 trades. General education and specialized theoretical training are provided for apprentices by 1,500 vocational schools.
"The actual costs of training apply only to companies that have apprentices," Plickert says.
There is some discussion - started mainly by trade unions - of spreading the cost of training among all German companies by collecting dues from each firm and reimbursing those who host apprentices. "But the companies resist this idea because ... they feel the quality of the training would go down," Plickert says. "They feel that once one gets money from somewhere else the attention goes down."
Apprenticeship training is an expensive undertaking. Although some smaller firms gain productivity from their apprentices, large companies often set up training systems that keep apprentices off the production line.
Daimler-Benz in Berlin spent 25 million marks ($15.9 million) three years ago to establish an apprenticeship hall. The expansive shop floor is crowded with equipment and surrounded by offices, a classroom, and a lunch room.
Apprentices, wearing blue bibs with the Mercedes symbol on the front and the German word Ausbildung (training), are scattered throughout the large room. Some operate computerized machinery while others file small pieces of metal.
Daimler-Benz spends 160,000 marks ($102,000) per apprentice during the two- to three-and-a-half-year training program. Smaller firms spend from one-third to one-half as much per apprentice.
Dirk Reineke, a first-year industrial-metal apprentice at Daimler-Benz, prefers the dual-training system to full-time school. Under the company's training program, he spends one week in school for every two weeks of work-based training. "I like the work here more than school," he says.
During the first year of apprenticing at Daimler-Benz, trainees get a basic education in the tools of the trade. Later, they may have opportunities to do projects for the on-site factory. For example, a small group of third-year apprentices is building a robot for the production line.
Instructor Stefan Brombeck used to work on the factory floor himself; now he concentrates on preparing the next generation of workers. "It's better to get young apprentices used to production," Mr. Brombeck says. "Otherwise they just build models. This way they get their marks [grades] from outside."
Although Daimler-Benz is actively recruiting girls for its apprenticeship positions, few young women are interested in the traditionally male metalworking trades. Theresa Jansen is one of a handful of female apprentices training at the company. "I didn't want to do a job in an office," she explains.
In general, it's becoming more difficult to fill apprenticeship positions in Germany with either men or women. "Most Germans are not interested in apprenticeships; they want to go to university," says Bardzuhn Ziegfried, a vocational-education teacher.
In the highly structured German education system, students begin making choices that determine their future as university students or apprentices at age 10. Some parents and educators are concerned about such early decisions.
"It's not easy to choose your profession when you are only 10 or 11 years old," says Eva Hansch, the mother of two sons. "For some pupils, it's too early to choose. You don't know what direction a child will go. Maybe they will have a totally different opinion five years later."
ONLY 25 percent of Germans attend universities, but that number is steadily increasing. This, coupled with a demographic dip in the youth population, is creating a shortage of apprentices.
"For the first time in the history of Germany, we have more [university] students than apprentices," Plickert says. "Kids tend to go to white-collar professions. Industrial jobs in factories or on production lines do not have a good image anymore."
"All parents want to get their children a university education," agrees Martin Beck, a political scientist at Deutscher Gerwerkschaftsbund, a large labor union. "The fear of the industry is that they will have too many overqualified people and not enough who can work in the crafts."
Higher education is free in Germany for any student who passes the Abitur, a national exam and certificate qualifying students for universities. But both students and educators complain that the test has become too easy and offers little guarantee of a job after college.
"Everybody dreams of getting a lot of money after the Abitur," says high school student Dennis Tefs, who has no plans to take the exam. "But the situation is very difficult now. There are too many people that get the Abitur."
"In the past, the Abitur stood for more knowledge," says Silke Michaeli, another high schooler. "But now there are too many chances to get it."
At the same time, the universities are overcrowded and many students attend year after year without graduating and joining the work force. "It's very easy to be a student in Germany," Plickert says. "We have people who study at the university for 15 years or more and nobody is asking them to take an examination."
"It's up to us to make the apprentice system more attractive," Plickert concludes. One proposal is to give apprentices who have passed the national trade examinations and had some work experience the same status as those with the Abitur. "We hope that if young kids know that apprenticeship training is not a dead-end street, working in a company will be more attractive to them," Plickert says.
As German youths focus their interest on a university education, foreigners are stepping in to fill many of the vacant apprenticeship positions. "All of my foreign students have gotten apprenticeships," says Brenne Uwe, a vocational-education teacher.
"Companies like to have young foreign apprentices in handicraft areas," Mr. Beck says. "There are only 2 percent more German students in apprenticeship programs than foreign students."
Some of the first-generation foreigners are hindered by language problems. "But the second and third generations can speak the language very well and have no problems," Beck says. * Laurel Shaper Walters traveled to Europe on a fellowship from the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Next Monday: The Netherlands.