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State to ring the changes with apprentices

Germany. Yojana Sharma on the government's attempt to counter record youth unemployment


Rising unemployment is forcing changes in Germany's much-admired apprenticeship system for school-leavers.

For the first time in years, new categories of apprenticeships are to be created, including computer repair and sales, and boat building. And, surprisingly for a system that began in the Middle Ages, bell-founding has only just been introduced.

Federal legislation expected to come into effect in April will approve 94 vocational categories to be set up over two years. However the move by the education ministry, backed by unions, industry and guilds may be too little too late for the rising tide of unemployed youth.

Jobless figures are at a post-war high of 4.8 million or 12 per cent of the workforce (21 per cent in the former East Germany).

The Federal Institute for Vocational Training estimates it takes two years to set up a vocational course and persuade small companies to take part. Some politicians fear the new apprenticeships may merely replace old ones, instead of increasing youth employment Dieter Hunt, president of the Federal Union of Employers, said the new apprenticeships would not help most jobless young people because they required higher-order skills they did not have. "The entry qualifications of those applying for training places are not good enough," he said. "Many are not ready to learn a specific trade."

Apprenticeships were first set up by powerful trade guilds in the 12th century and extended to heavy and light industry this century. Until the mid-1990s the system catered for all school-leavers (17-year-olds) not wishing to go on to further study. Formal three-year courses in state-funded vocational schools combined with on-the-job training provided some of the western world's highest-trained workers.

But the system is coming under stress as German firms lay off staff and as the children of the baby-boomers reach school-leaving age, creating a population bulge.

Of 600,000 school-leavers in 1997, 150,000 were without places at the end of last year - a record high, according to the trade unions. Just to meet demand this year, 13,000 more placements must be created - instead the number has dropped by 25 per cent since 1991, according to a parliamentary committee on employment.

Worse, school-leavers are competing with 19-year-olds who have the Abitur, the A-level equivalent which qualifies for university entrance. A growing number of Abiturienten prefer an apprenticeship with a job at the end to five or more years of university and the prospect of graduate unemployment.

The authorities hope the new high-tech apprenticeships will attract those Abiturienten who have already demonstrated a preference for the service industry.

Educational experts say a more radical overhaul is overdue and may not be helped by the new categories. Many believe three-year apprenticeships are too long in a world of rapid change. Classroom instruction is too theoretical, and the skills do not suit the new jobs being created.

One company offering apprenticeships in horticulture complained that the linked vocational course required apprentices to learn the name of every plant in Latin, putting off the very students they were trying to attract.

Competition is also making companies less inclined to invest in three-year apprenticeships. Apprentices spend two days at vocational schools - leaving little time out of a 35-hour week to learn on-the-job skills making them less attractive to smaller firms.

To maintain the balance of theoretical and on-the-job training, so that apprenticeships are a genuine extension of education, the state is having to bear more of the costs. In former East Germany, one in five apprentices is employed in purely state-financed training schemes.

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