Hands and heads

Germany’s much admired vocational education system – combining schooling with work experience – has been struggling as more young people go to university. An engineering factory in Bavaria highlights how much potential there still is in the dual training set-up

Text: Christian Sywottek
Photos: Robert Fischer

It is 8am at the training centre of Maschinenfabrik Reinhausen (MR) in Regensburg-Haslbach in Bavaria. Simon Knittl, an aspiring IT electronics engineer, is working on a training device, plugging in the electrical connections for an apartment. He has also worked in the engineering company’s finance department, learning book-keeping. Even though he dropped out of secondary school at 16 with mediocre grades, Knittl has the chance to train for a demanding occupation. “Quite a few of my grades were only adequate,” admits the 20-year-old. This job is ideal for him, he says, as it offers “a good combination of head and hand-work, which I can put to use in a wide variety of ways in the future”. All around him, young men and women are connecting up switchboards, linking motors to intelligent control systems, or filing away at parts clamped in vices at their workbenches.

There are no spare places at this training centre, and it is the same every year. There are up to 20 applications for every vacancy. Of 110 trainees – apprentices and dual-vocational training students – 14 are also studying for a university degree, but 30 apprentices have only completed basic secondary schooling. The company likes to hire people it has trained itself, so there’s no shortage of skilled workers here – partly because almost no one drops out, but also because the company takes on all its apprentices when they finish. Within 10 years, two-thirds of them will have gained further qualifications as technicians or master craftworkers.

The family firm, with 3,350 employees worldwide and an annual turnover of roughly €750m (£700m), mainly produces on-load or circuit tap changers (LTCs) for transformers – devices tiny or huge that ensure stable voltage. It is state-of-the-art technology. The factory is considered a frontrunner of industrial digitalisation, or Industry 4.0.

At MR, Germany’s dual vocational training works well. The combination of learning at work and at vocational training college is seen as a key support for the strength of the German economy, and regarded as a role model from Spain to China. But in Germany itself the system is coming under increasing pressure.

The number of trainees has fallen by 7.2% since 2005, to just 480,000 at the latest count. More young people are going into higher education: 511,000 of them last year. In the same period, the number of unfilled apprenticeships rose to 43,500, yet many school-leavers could not get a place – and nearly 300,000 were parked in so-called vocational preparation schemes.

Luzia Pfeilschifter with instructor Markus Haneder

More and more firms are also turning their backs on the dual vocational training system: only 20% of companies now take part, with 91% of firms complaining that applicants lack the basics for vocational training. “Dual training is a great model, but too few people are opting for it,” says Jörg Dräger, director of education and integration at the Bertelsmann Foundation, an independent thinktank. “If it carries on like this, there’s no future for it.” He sees the system as both a victim of the general trend towards higher education, and of its own weaknesses.

Key investment

One such flaw is the concentration on “the best”. Nowadays, only a quarter of trainees arrive with minimum school qualifications. In 2015 the proportion of school-leavers who had passed Germany’s Abitur exam, qualifying them for university, rose to almost 28%. Trainees with higher qualifications are over-represented in the civil service and popular branches of industry. “Firms must urgently open up to taking weaker school-leavers,” says Dräger. “And then they must find ways of training them up to the standard of the ever-rising demands in the professions. Otherwise, what was once an inclusive model of dual training will become a system of exclusion.”

 Dräger sees good reasons why universities are so attractive. Today’s world of work demands competences “typically gained in a university-level course of studies”. These include analytical skills and the ability to think for oneself. “It’s not just about having expert knowledge, but having the will and ability to keep tackling new challenges.” And that is where there are deficiencies, both in the firms and in the vocational training schools. “Staff who are too old, too few teachers, a third of schools haven’t even got good wi-fi.”

German politicians have recognised the problem and allocated funds for equipping vocational training schools. The German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) is investigating the effects of digitalisation in various professions to better coordinate training plans with them. Learning a profession should not be a dead end, says the BIBB’s president, Friedrich Hubert Esser. To prevent over-specialisation it is necessary to link up suitable professions, as has been done with the emergence of mechatronics – a multidisciplinary field that combines mechanical engineering, electronics, computer engineering, telecoms, and control engineering. A two-way transfer between vocational training and university is also important.

But the best plans are no use if they are not acted on. And that is the problem, says Esser. “Implementation often falls short of what is needed. Training must be improved.”

So what would an up-to-date dual system look like? In the Reinhausen factory they have a pragmatic answer. “It’s no use simply dumping a load of school-leavers into a rigid system,” says Stefan Thür, MR’s training manager, who stresses that digitalising a workforce does not mean “that you just hand everybody an iPhone and a tablet”. The 47-year-old toolmaker is a genial man with a dry sense of humour. “In the end,” he says, “it all depends on having the right team and enough time. What is more, we tend to use all-rounders rather than niche specialists. If you have the right basic grounding, you’ll be able to adapt to any leaps in technology in the course of your working life and fit in with the new working cultures that come with them.”

Simon Knittl, trainee IT system electronics engineer
Markus Haneder, Stefan Haimerl and their students

Discussions about who would be a good “fit” for the team begin long before job interviews at MR. The firm organises technology days in primary schools, takes part in Germany’s annual Girls’ Day – an initiative to encourage girls to train in technical professions – and offers various internships – with the result that the firm already knows up to two-thirds of the trainees before the course starts. Thür and his colleagues ensure the trainees gain wide experience. In the first year particularly, the various professions rub shoulders, for example on the basic metalworking course, where prospective IT electronics engineers saw, drill and file together with trainees on the commercial side. Thür believes it is not just about gaining technical skills – “although it is good that some future buyer will know what he is actually buying when he orders a tool” – but also about gaining knowledge of human nature. “You need proximity and young people should learn to network. It is a preparation for their later working lives, when they will engage with different professions. After all, jobs are subject to change. Collaboration between mechanics, controllers and programmers, for example, will intensify.”

It is good to create an atmosphere where there’s no place for superiority. So, unlike other firms, MR does not distinguish between its apprentices and the dual-vocational training students, who work side by side on the same curriculum. That is based on the idea that brain work isn’t much use without hands-on work. And that those who work with their hands have plenty between their ears.

Strength of the weaker

In Reinhausen, they have traditionally and successfully put their faith in school-leavers with only basic qualifications. As one trainer, Michael Dobler, puts it: “These pupils stick with me; the ones with higher qualifications like the Abitur move on. And the ones we pick don’t think in such complicated ways, and they’ve often already repaired tractors or something at home. The trick is knowing how to get the less academic ones to make great progress.”

Dobler, 41, is a machinist who only had a basic school certificate. Before becoming an instructor, he was responsible for various tool-making machines, including programming. “Many of the people who were apprentices with me are now heads of department and such like,” he says. “That proves you can make it. Even though the demands are constantly increasing. Because you first have to learn to understand the machines which will later make our lives easier through mechanisation.”

That’s why the factory does not go in for narrow training. “We deliberately do not train anybody to work on an assembly line,” says Dobler, “because we have a duty to the trainees; they need skills for life. And MR needs people like that.”

Michael Dobler with trainees

This includes supporting the less able so that they can keep up. If a trainee has problems with maths, Dobler likes to pair him with someone with higher qualifications. “Then they’ll learn what working together means too, like they’ll have to later, in the factory.” Or Dobler teaches them tricks to remember things. He explains things over and over again, continuing after working hours if necessary. “You just have to take your time.”

At MR, 12 instructors are responsible for 110 trainees – a comparatively good ratio. And the firm’s training centre deliberately provides a “safe space”, according to Dobler. It means that young people can be taken out of production for two weeks before their exams for cramming. They are also allowed to make a mess of projects without the supervisors intervening, because, as Dobler says: “You learn particularly well from your mistakes. And if a young person figures out a solution for themselves, that is a tremendous boost for their self-esteem.” It costs Dobler time and effort, but he sees it as part of his job. “If the trainees could do everything from the start, there would be no need for us.”

The engineering works obviously also attracts young people with very good qualifications – a third have passed their Abitur. One such is 19-year-old Luzia Pfeilschifter, who is training to be a mechatronics engineer and studying electrotechnology at the same time. “I came to MR to learn with ordinary trainees. I always want to do the theory first, but the others want to get going straight away,” she says, “and when I see that it gives me the confidence to do the same.” For Pfeilschifter that confidence is more important than “immediately putting on your data goggles”.

Common sense helps: training manager Stefan Thür

At MR, “data goggles” have so far played only a minor role. “We start off with the simple question ‘what is electric current?’,” says Stefan Haimerl, a 25-year-old instructor. “Then comes wiring, then programming. We don’t get to networked machines and tablets until the very end, otherwise all the training is useless.” He is in charge of electrical and mechatronics training. “Nobody knows where Industry 4.0 is going to lead us,” he says, “so we must train people who can develop it. And networking simply means combining the fundamentals.” Haimerl works closely with Markus Haneder, who is responsible for mechatronics. Haneder, 39, makes similarly down-to-earth points: “Networking starts at the bottom – man first, then technology. So you have to bring people together.”

While other firms call for training in new professions, at MR they prefer to use the freedom provided by the existing training regulations. So would-be industrial mechanics do courses in electronics, and future electronics engineers and machinists learn IT and programming. The firm decides which technologies or computer languages look promising. In everyday work, too, boundaries between professions that used to be distinct are breaking down. In consequence, metalwork and electrical engineering were merged; in the test laboratory, mechanics and engineers work together. “Such collaborations will increase,” says Haneder.

To help young people learn how that works, there are projects involving trainees from a range of professions. They make power units, model lifts, working demonstration objects for trade fairs and even complex measurement technology. They design and draw, buy the parts, organise and carry out production, document and present their work. Timetables for those on the commercial side also include taking part in such projects. Above all, Haneder wants to teach them to be practical and independent. After the foundation courses, trainees can decide for themselves which areas they want to study in greater depth: alternating current technology, semiconductors or programmable logic devices? And it’s up to them when and how they prepare for their exams, on their own or in a group.

Teaching needs passion

Good training needs good instructors. Thür sets great store by colleagues who tackle a task because they really want to do it “rather than because they had problems on the production side”. Apart from his main responsibilities, Dobler still tests any new software before it is used in production. Haneder is actually a mechanical engineer but has recently just completed his electronics training. And Haimerl keeps in close contact with the vocational training school by means of phone calls, visits and internships for teachers. The training never stops, not even for those in charge of it.