The German training system is in trouble, reports Matthew Beard, but it can still show this country the way.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has joined the critics attacking his country's industrial training standards, saying that the much-lauded apprenticeship system has become a "national disgrace".
Although the number of apprenticeships has been in decline for more than a decade, there are now, for the first time, too few traineeships for the 620,000 16-year-olds seeking to begin their careers.
However, UK academics insist that Germany, and its neighbours in Austria, Switzerland and France, are still streets ahead of Britain. And they believe that Britain should follow its example as it sets about reshaping education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds.
But Chancellor Kohl is so concerned about the decline that he has appealed to the captains of industry to continue to fund traineeships during the lingering recession.
Careers advisers and job centres have embarked on a campaign to rekindle employers' enthusiasm. In North Rhine-Westphalia, stars from the region's top football teams have been enlisted to remind employers of their traditional "social responsibility" for training the nation's youth.
Put simply, the problem has been caused by recession. As jobs have been lost, training places have been cut back to reduce production costs. Over the past 10 years the number of traineeships in the sectors of trade and industry alone has fallen by 40 per cent, with only 14 per cent of industrial firms engaged in vocational training this year.
Inspectors from England's Further Education Funding Council, who visited Germany last year, found multi-national companies were reluctant to pay for training when they knew other countries would contribute towards it.
They also noted that the allowance paid to trainees becomes prohibitively expensive during a recession. In the retail and wholesale sector, for example, trainees' pay averages out at 1,050 DM (Pounds 460) per month for three years. The FEFC was told that the "dual system", where youngsters divide their time between vocational school and on-the-job training, adds a reported 2DM an hour to production costs.
Professor Sig Prais, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, an independent think-tank, admits "there are cracks appearing in the German system". He says: "There is a depression and severe unemployment, the unification of east and west as well as the net decline over a decade in the number of 16-year-olds."
But he points out that, compared with Britain, the German system is a phenomenal success. The British government is proud of the 25,000 young people on Modern Apprenticeships, Professor Prais says. The comparable figure in west Germany alone is 450,000.
Young Germans are obliged to continue in full-time education or training until the age of 18 - and their country has already achieved the education and training target set by Britain for the year 2000.
According to Professor Prais, the equivalent British scheme remains a poor relation in terms of quality. The Youth Training programme, which involves approximately 277,000 young Britons, is half way as good as the German system in terms of the standards reached, he said.
In his review of 16-19 education published earlier this year, Sir Ron Dearing proposed that the stigmatised YT programme be replaced by a national traineeship.
Trainees would have broader academic skills as well as more general abilities required by employers. This aspect of training would be provided by colleges, establishing the sort of joint college-workplace structure which has long been in use in Germany and elsewhere in continental Europe.
There are also fundamental educational issues, says Professor Prais. In order to win the respect of employers, vocational qualifications can no longer be protected from rigorous external examination. The argument is about more than Dearing's proposal to give them parity of esteem with A-levels. He says: "It's all very well calling for parity of esteem, but you've also got to have parity of reliability." The Government should swallow its pride and externally assess NVQs as it considers Sir Ron's recommendations, he says.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment studies at Brunel University, believes that vocational qualifications have got to be of more value, both to trainees and employers.
For all the recent reported successes of NVQs and GNVQs, he insists they are still "artificial" qualifications. Employers and educators should hammer out an agreement on the content of courses which should then be subject to the rigorous standards imposed on GCSEs and A-levels, he says.
Professor Smithers also wants a national register of qualified people to provide a ready and reliable pool of skills to employers.
He believes that Britain is now faced with a stark choice of either investing in quality training along the lines of the German system or risking the future health of the British economy by trying to compete with Asia and eastern Europe.
A recent study of product quality in Britain and Germany illustrates the point. Ten items were compared and in each case the German product was of higher quality. A German blouse, for example, manufactured by trained machinists and technicians was both a superior product and less than half the price. Researchers concluded that by concentrating on low-quality, mass-produced goods, Britain was forcing itself into competition with low-wage economies.
Professor Smithers says: "In world markets we are used to being in division one - if we want to retain this status we will have to compete not on cost but quality."