Germany's Chancellor Schroeder is threatening to demand money from firms that offer too few apprenticeships or training places for young school-leavers.
The compulsory levy, which could amount to 0.3 per cent of firms' wage and salary costs, would be paid into a central fund to finance training places or subsidise those who have fulfilled their traineeship obligations.
The threat is a response to a 14 per cent fall in training places offered by companies and trade sectors this year.
This has left 28,000 young people with no training prospects despite an ongoing campaign by government unemployment offices, chambers of commerce and trade associations, to provide school-leavers with counselling and job training.
Despite fierce criticism from industry and the Conservative opposition, Schroeder's centre-left government plans to introduce the levy from September 2004, unless the training gap is closed.
The Federal Labour Office is now locked in a race against time to persuade thousands of firms to offer traineeships within the next few weeks.
Hanns-Eberhard Schleyer, secretary-general of Germany's Association of Trades and Craftsmen, said the levy would penalise smaller firms and allow larger companies to "buy their way out" of their training obligations.
He added that many young people were not qualified for the jobs they want.
"Popular trades such as car mechanic, skilled metalworker and information technology demand good basic reading and writing skills and a head for maths," he said. Yet many candidates had poor school records or a history of truancy and bad behaviour.
"We can't be responsible for the shortcomings of the school system," said Mr Schleyer, who favours fostering children's skills from an early age.
Another problem is the lack of interest among many young people. Only 55 per cent of registered candidates turned up for interviews during the national recruitment campaign, organised with the support of federal unemployment offices.
Of these, two-thirds secured traineeships, while the remaining 30 per cent will be placed in special "step-by-step" programmes in popular trades such as carpentry, metalwork and stonemasonry, to acquire some basic skills.
Recruiters also said youngsters who fail to secure their "dream" job appear unwilling to accept apprenticeships in other industries such as restaurants, catering and bakeries.
A levy would therefore penalise firms in unpopular trades that are desperate to train young people, but cannot find willing candidates.
FE Focus 1