The Way Into Work

Germany’s apprenticeship system is the envy of Europe. Here’s why.

Photo: Miquel Gonzalez
Apprentice Priscilla Wölbling gets hands-on, supervised by a Mercedes trainer.

Not many 20-year-olds would relish getting up at 5.45 a.m. every day in order to arrive at work for a 7.30 a.m. start. And Priscilla Wölbling admits that she does cast envious eyes at her student friends and the gentler hours they keep—“plus, of course, the long holidays,” she says, smiling. However, while Priscilla’s peers may be learning—her brother and sister are both at university—she has been both learning and earning as a second-year apprentice at the massive Mercedes-Benz plant at Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart.

More like a small town than a factory, this is Mercedes’ biggest plant in Europe, employing 26,000 on its production lines and 11,000 more in its R&D department.

Working alongside them are 850 apprentices, a fifth of them female. Across Germany, Daimler AG (Mercedes-Benz’s parent group) employs just under 6,000 apprentices on 31 apprenticeship programs, 20 focusing on the complex technical skills required in car and vehicle making and 11 administrative apprenticeships.

“I knew nothing about cars beyond the fact that they have four wheels and a steering wheel,” says Priscilla, who is training in car mechatronic systems, the multidisciplinary fusion of mechanical engineering, electronics and computer science that features in today’s vehicles and in the robots that increasingly make them.

“As far back as I can remember, I was interested in technical things,” she says. “A friend of mine was already doing a mechatronics apprenticeship here and he spoke very positively about it. The chance to earn while training instead of continuing school was also a big draw.”

So in the summer of 2015, following an online test to assess her ability in maths and science, Priscilla came to the Sindelfingen plant for a ‘Let’s Benz’ recruiting week.

“I took the application test, had an interview, met some apprentices and got to try some things out. I really liked what I saw and the fact that girls were being trained, although hopefully the number will increase even more. A week later I was told I had been accepted; I started that September on a three-and-a-half year apprenticeship.”

Also starting was 17-year-old Max Ehrlich, who is training to be a construction mechanic. “We are in charge of all the body parts of the car. I was always interested in cars, but I knew nothing about how they were physically constructed,” he says.

Looming skills shortages are driving apprenticeships to the top of the political agenda in Europe. “Forty percent of European employers report that they cannot find people with the right skills to grow and innovate,” reports the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, which is dedicated to strengthening the quality, supply and image of apprenticeships across Europe. And while 13 million people across Europe are involved in vocational and educational training (VET) programs leading to a qualification these often involve little more than workplace visits for school pupils.

More than half of young Germans become apprentices when they leave their full-time education. What makes German apprenticeships different is that they are based on the concept of “dual training”, whereby practice and theory go hand in hand. In school, the curriculum followed by apprentices is related to the particular job they are being trained for.

Nevertheless, it is important that they have good common knowledge as well, so subjects such as German, ethics and social studies are also taught.

Photo: Miquel Gonzalez
Thomas Fuhry, head of vocational training, with Priscilla Wölbling and Max Ehrlich in the background.

As Thomas Fuhry, head of vocational training at Sindelfingen, explains: “We hire our apprentices as employees—they start on just under €1,000 a month—and we supply all the hands-on practical training and invest heavily in our facilities and new technologies required to train them. But our apprentices also spend time going to a technical school where they learn the theory behind the practice. The German government pays for that part of their apprenticeship.”

All major German companies, such as Bosch and Siemens, and many smaller ones, offer similar dual training, working with government, technical universities and chambers of commerce to tailor training to future needs. In 2014 nearly 1.4 million young Germans were in 350 dual apprenticeship programs, which last two to three-and-a-half years with an average graduation age of 22.

Could this become the model for the rest of Europe, where most countries offer an often-bewildering patchwork of less-focused training opportunities? In the UK, where less than 2 percent of 16-year-olds become apprentices, the government has pledged to hit a target of three million apprenticeships by 2020. But the independent research body the Institute for Fiscal Studies has branded the initiative’s funding, based on an employers’ levy, as “poor value for money”.

In France, where youth unemployment is around 21 percent and only about a quarter of youngsters take up apprenticeships, the problem is not so much the quality of the teaching and work experience. The obstacle remains traditional snobbery towards vocational training in a country where the Grandes Ecoles focus on creating elites and the rules on apprenticeships seem to change faster than firms can fill in the forms.

Those countries with the most effective apprenticeship systems—Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands—have largely adopted the German model.

“The combination of schooling and practicing and the chance to learn on the job is a foundation of German industry,” says Thomas Fuhry. “I think that this is the formula to succeed.” Indeed, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder began his career with an apprenticeship in retail sales at a hardware store.

Daimler and Mercedes-Benz have been offering systematic on-the-job training since 1916, but apprenticeships in Germany have their roots in the Middle Ages, when craft guilds took on young people to learn skills from master craftsmen. It is no coincidence that modern Germany has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe: 6.7 percent against the EU average of 16.7 percent.

In the third week of every month Priscilla and Max attend the nearby Gottlieb-Daimler School, named after Daimler’s founder, to learn the theory they need to do their respective jobs well.

The apprentices’ training center at the main Sindelfingen plant covers two large floors. It is packed with Mercs up on ramps and on test beds and has exactly the same equipment the apprentices will use when they start work in the factory, including the latest robotics for assembly and paint finishes, diagnostic electronics, milling and stamping machines.

But before they join the fast-changing world of hybrid cars and driverless technology, all apprentices, sporting their blue Mercedes overalls, begin with the basics. “In my first year I learned how a four-stroke engine works by taking it apart and putting it back together in perfect working order,” Priscilla explains. “Then we moved on to the electrics.” In his area, Max began with just a small aspect of body construction.

“To teach the whole car in one step would be too complex and an information overload,” says Joaquim Santos, who is responsible for international qualification and apprentice projects at Sindelfingen and who completed his own apprenticeship at Daimler 34 years ago.

“We start small and work it up until they have an intimate knowledge of product and processes. People like Priscilla and Max, who come with little car knowledge but a desire to learn, make really good apprentices. In my experience, those who think they already know everything about cars tend to fail the selection test!”

Throughout their training these young engineers are keenly aware that an apprentice scheme is not a dress rehearsal for the world of work; rather, it is the first step in what Mercedes hopes will be a long career. And that first step gets increasingly technical. The apprentices now use 3D printing in the training center’s Future Lab to make prototype parts, just as they do in the plant’s Advanced Design Center. A prototype can be made in minutes rather than days or weeks.

Max dons a Robocop-style mask to do some virtual welding on a computer screen. “Learning to weld virtually is not only safer but is also very cost-effective because you don’t waste materials if you make a mistake,” he says.

Even so, working by hand is still a respected skill and high standards are demanded. Those apprentices specializing in paint and coating technology know they will eventually be working with robot painters, but first they have to learn all the different color mixes and how to spray car bodies manually.

Photo: Miquel Gonzalez
Virtual welding forms part of Max Ehrlich’s training.

“My second-year practical examination project is to make a tool that can be used in the production line,” Max says. “It has to be precise and working perfectly and I have six hours to do it.”  Priscilla’s challenge is to devise three different diagnostic tests for electrical systems and engine performance. Then there is a series of written exams.

The company’s history is not forgotten. Among the shining contemporary models is a working replica of an 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen, regarded as the world’s first automobile, and one of several made by the apprentices.

“Today’s apprentices will not be spending their lives just making cars,” says Thomas Fuhry. “With all the robotics and technologies at their disposal they will be first and foremost problem solvers and communicators.

“It is really important that they understand the concept of VUCA—the challenges of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—which we all face in the industrial, economic and political environment. Tomorrow nothing will be as we expect it to be today.”

So why do other countries not follow the German model? Well, to some extent they do because German global companies have plants around the world following the dual training approach. Daimler AG has just over 2,000 apprentices around the globe and runs school-cooperation programs involving 4,000 young people in China, India and other countries where it has a presence. Overseas apprentices also often visit the training center at Sindelfingen.

“Traditionally, German companies invest in their future,” says Joaquim Santos, who has run apprenticeship schemes for Daimler in Brazil and the United States. “I think many countries, such as America, are focusing on short-term solutions.”

Max Ehrlich is in it for the long-term. “When I finish my apprenticeship I want to go to university to study for a mechanical engineering degree, before coming back to Daimler.” This he can do with financial support from the Daimler Academic Program. Priscilla says she might like to move into R&D.

Beyond the early starts, eight-hour days and the demands of work and study that eat into their leisure time, neither Priscilla nor Max sees a downside to life as an apprentice. They are quietly confident and, despite their youth, skilled time managers. Both love playing sport (she baseball and biking, he squash and gym) and hanging out with friends; Priscilla also volunteers at her local fire department.

All apprentices who successfully complete their Mercedes training are offered a contract. When asked what the dropout rate is, Thomas Fuhry looks perplexed. “Why, it’s zero,” he says, breaking into a smile.

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