U.S. Businesses Eye German Apprenticeship System


Marko Lueder can see into the future: 20 years from now, he plans to work in a vast electronics plant housed in a series of red-brick buildings in the heart of Berlin.

“I expect to be a boss, though,” said the brash, 17-year-old Berliner with a young man’s dreams and a grown-up job.

Lueder is one of 1.8 million Germans aged 15 to 18 who have apprenticeships under the nation’s rigidly organized vocational education system, one of the oldest and most successful in the world.


Elements of the German system are getting increased attention in the United States these days as the federal government and U.S. firms search for ways to improve vocational education and the skills of America’s work force.

A report this May by the Conference Board, a nonprofit business research firm in New York, said U.S. corporations view the German system “with interest and envy.” Many industrialized countries, and Germany in particular, “have better systems of work preparation than ours--and better learners,” the report concluded.

Lueder is a mechanic’s apprentice at AEG, the big electronics and appliance arm of the Daimler-Benz company with a 78-year-old apprenticeship program.

He became an apprentice when he was 16, and spends 60 days a year in class, absorbing traditional schoolwork. He spends 180 days in the shop, learning his livelihood.

For that, he earns $508 per month, which will increase to $564 in the third and final year of his apprenticeship.

As early as age 12, German children take the first steps down a career path that can lead to a job as a banker, bookkeeper or bricklayer.

As dictated by their potential, their parents and their counselors, they usually enter one of three types of secondary schools: one geared toward university enrollment, one leading to training for lower-rung office jobs, and one for eventual blue-collar work.

In the German states they control politically, the left-leaning Social Democrats have set up something they believe is more democratic: single secondary schools that combine all three elements, like American high schools.

Some critics have said that the traditional system often funnels people from lower socio-economic groups into blue-collar jobs at too young an age, and makes it too difficult for late bloomers to switch to a different track.

But many Germans view their goal-oriented education system as the bulwark of their diverse and powerful economy, and vocational education as one of its pillars.

“This is one of the main forces behind the prosperity of the west German economy,” said Wolgang Scherement, a labor market analyst for Berlin’s German Society for Economic Research.

Compulsory education in Germany lasts until age 18. Students who are not preparing for higher education enter either full-time trade schools or apprenticeship programs.

In the 10th grade, often as early as 15 years of age, children are in factories, learning a trade while attending classes part-time.

About 350 apprentices, roughly 5% of the work force, study and work at AEG’s operations in Berlin, said Rudolf Wachsmuth, chief of the company’s commercial and technical training program.

AEG spent $90 million last year for training. Wachsmuth said he gets 10 applications for every apprenticeship opening.

Experts here and in the United States say it would be almost impossible, and of questionable desirability, to duplicate the German system in the United States.

For one thing, vocational education is willingly funded by German private industry to the tune of about $28 billion a year, noted Heinz Wirtz, an economist, engineer and vocational education expert.

“It’s a very long tradition here,” he said. “I don’t think it can be understood by American companies. People here have been educated to educate themselves and their future manpower.”