Stefanie Müller. Correspondent. Wirtschaftswoche
26 January 2004
Apprenticeships, professional academies and corporate universities are the cornerstones of a practical German training system that is gaining advocates in other countries
An important reason for the high productivity and efficiency in German industry is academic training that is closely linked to the practical aspects it provides. German industry does not merely furnish the traditional apprenticeship for young, skilled workers, but incorporates professional academies and enterprise universities for junior staff, which combine theory and business.
Those starting out in a trade are typically 16 years old. They are offered a two-year training contract which combines their apprenticeship in the enterprise with a weekly visit to a vocational school, where theory complements practical experience.
Instead of paying for technical training to become an electrician, plumber or painter, as is frequently the case in Spain, the training enterprise deducts a few hundred euros each month from the apprentice’s wages. It is a wise investment which helps the enterprise acquire a skilled worker in a relatively favorable manner, and guarantees the apprentice a steady job.
This two-sided concept of professional training has been implemented by the German Chamber of Commerce in Spain, among other places, and with great success. In this way, numerous German enterprises secure a well-trained workforce locally (further information at www.aset.es).
Exporting the education
This training system is highly regarded and even copied in other countries, where it has been used for some time to prepare trainee managers. Numerous professional academies sprang up in the 1970s, particularly in southern Germany, where school-leavers could start their studies with a company contract already in the bag. The Stuttgart vocational academy (www.ba-stuttgart.de), the first of its kind, offers 40 different courses of study, boasts 5,000 training companies – including practically all the big names, such as Lufthansa, Siemens and DaimlerChrysler – and 20,000 students.
Every three months or so, the colleges, which are mainly publicly owned, and the companies alternate training young talent. Programs at these professional academies sometimes even envisage possibilities of working abroad at a foreign branch or another university. This is the case at Porsche. Studies last three years and clearly give those who complete them a competitive edge. They are not only younger than the average university graduates (who need five years to get their degrees), but also better prepared for future management duties, thanks to their practical experience. The diploma, which already exists for economists, IT experts, engineers and social educators, corresponds to one awarded by a German specialist college or university. In addition, many professional academies offer further educational programs, such as international business studies or an MBA.
The new elite are being shaped at these practical forges. Those gaining access to them have their applications sent directly to the enterprises, where foreigners are also welcome. But they must prepare for several years of tough going. The typical university lifestyle, with parties during the week and long sleep-ins, has no place here. Vacations are stipulated in the work contract, usually four weeks a year. For that reason however, there is also a wage, which lets students leave home and pay for their accommodation. Anyone with problems making ends meet can seek state assistance, just like any other German student, and apply for a low-interest loan.
Demand is constantly rising. Most students are taken on by training enterprises, and attractive starting salaries of around 35,000 euros a year are pretty enticing. Companies’ selection procedures are therefore becoming harder. Lufthansa alone processes 2,000 job applications a year, and accepts only the best.
The system has been imitated in Indonesia, Israel and Colombia. A more recent offshoot has been appearance of American-style corporate universities. The first was created in 1997; currently they number around 80. Nearly all firms on the German DAX index have such facilities. However, they are used predominantly for training and specialist courses for management personnel and not for all staff, as in the U.S. They generally offer training on company policy matters, internal processes or strategy changes, focusing less on general business or economics.
These courses are usually given at U.S., Swiss or English business schools and universities. Few collaboration agreements with German training institutions exist. Companies say the problem is that their approach is not practical, and too orientated toward the German market. It is obvious that what is needed is a more global view of things. Moreover, German university professors are above all bureaucrats, thus not very performance-oriented.
Business schools usually provide companies with current standard program packages that include case studies. Lessons are repeatedly revised, and participants can take advantage of special conditions to take courses at the schools.
Germany’s three practice-oriented training phases are helping insure that the nation’s new generation of engineers, managers and technical specialists is welcomed with open arms abroad. They are also making German industry one of the most productive in the world.