Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Flexibility of the German Dual System of Vocational Education and Training

At a Technical Education School in Bremen.
July 10, 2014 - Bremen, Germany. By Zachary Riffell.

The German dual-track system is full of mystery for Americans. We take our time when Googling information, but apparently not all information on the internet is reliable. Some in America view the system as oppressive, a rigid system that provides little to no flexibility to meet the needs of the individual. The perception is that the system is built solely on the needs of the state and the people are mere cogs in the machine. Part of this belief is true, but the question is to determine if it is possible to meet the needs of society without sacrificing the individual.

Throughout the week, my understanding of the German system has vacillated significantly. The system seems incredibly structured and carries students into their early twenties, yet there is permeability in the system (one that confuses Americans with their linear view of education) that allows for significant choice. The visits at the schools and conversations with students had convinced me that little was etched in stone, that students were free to jump from school to school within the system.

At the Bremen Chamber of Commerce.
For example, our trip to the Bremen Chamber of Commerce on July 9 had some shocking implications. In the middle of the conversation, Karlheinz Heidemeyer explicitly said that the system is built on “training based on the practical requirements of the companies.” While this was likely an implicit understanding all along, the outright statement was somewhat shocking. Does this mean that the needs or desires of the individual workers simply do not matter?

The answer to the question above is a resounding NO. We have met many people with varied backgrounds in our studies here. One professor went through the apprenticeship program. One teacher began as a lawyer. One HR manager started as a mechanic. The flexibility is there (but please don’t ask me to explain it in its entirety).

The important issue is that students find training. They learn how to do something. This is not insignificant. This initial level of success introduces them to work and convinces them of their ability to operate within society. Many likely continue along the line of their initial training. Others discover a new avenue for further exploration. Somehow it works.

Of course, it may seem obvious that there is flexibility within the system. In the German vocational system, there are 331 vocations. Surely this is not enough to catalog the extent of work that must be done in such an advanced society. Some flexibility must be inherent.

A training supervisor and an apprentice sharing how the
apprenticeship system works at the J Muller company.
J Müller, a logistics company in Brake and Bremen, addresses this for their own needs. The company currently trains 61 apprentices. This training is governed by the federal state which outlines the standards for training. At J Müller, apprentices receive this mandated instruction, but they also receive additional training. “We want employees with some flexibility,” Bernd Kempendorf told us. (This is a powerful message for people who complain about standards in the United States. Standards for instruction can and should be viewed as minimums, not maximums for instruction.) In fact, the company now offers an incentive program for those hired on after their apprenticeships that allows them to pursue university training.

There is still much for me to learn about the German system, but the concept that the needs of the businesses must come first is not something I feel I need help in understanding. The people of Germany are taught how to function. They are given opportunities to succeed. They are not locked into a career they pick as a teenager, as so many fear. The system works because society’s needs are met, because businesses’ needs are met. Individuals can meet their needs because of the success of the businesses and the vocational education and training system.
Zachary Riffell is Project Manager of Advanced Career at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, GA.
He is also a doctoral student in career and workforce education at the University of South Florida.