Editor's comment
Published:  06 January, 2008

Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany has a proven answer to attracting talented recruits into the manufacturing and engineering sectors.  If implemented here it could help to plug the skills gap in our industry and reduce the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds.

Chris Coopey, head of the manufacturing group at Sussex-based Carpenter Box, believes that Germany's dual system of classroom and work-based learning could go a long way to regenerating our manufacturing and engineering sectors, and prevent a lost generation of youth through unemployment in Britain.

One of the keys to Angela Merkel's strategy is the importance placed by German secondary schools on mixing academic study with shop-floor work experience to encourage talented school leavers to enter industry, and take up other vocational careers. 

Coopey, who also heads the manufacturing group in MHA, a national association of independent accountants, strongly believes that this dual strand to education, along with a dynamic apprenticeship system, should be a model for the UK.

In the UK, apprenticeships are entered into after secondary or tertiary education and not always with a long-term career path in mind?, he says.

Although there are now moves to strengthen the vocational qualification regime for 16-19 year olds, sadly, any semblance of a dual approach in secondary schools in the UK was shattered in January 2012 when Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education ordered 96% of GCSE-equivalent vocational qualifications to be stripped from school league tables, following recommendations made in the Wolf report. Since then 60% of secondary schools are reported to be either planning to cut provision of vocational qualifications or have already done so.

Coopey believes that academic bias in Britain leads schools to focus the brightest and best to head off to University to obtain a degree in an academic subject, which is often a precursor to a career in a service industry: As a result, our engineering and manufacturing sectors continue to struggle with a lack of talented candidates at all levels and this undermines the UK government's stated aim of rebalancing our economy.

What is interesting to note in light of Angela Merkel's strategy, is that at 7.5%, Germany's youth unemployment rate (% of under-25s out of work) is a fraction of that in the UK (20.5%), and is dwarfed by the eye-watering levels in some European nations (Greece, 62.5 %, Spain 56.4%, Portugal 42.5%, Italy 40.5%).

But like the UK, Germany faces a drought of skilled workers for the future. The German Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, has so far survived the Eurozone crisis. But the country currently has 33,000 unfilled apprenticeships and faces a growing skills shortage due to its ageing population.

Unsurprisingly German forward thinking has prompted it to look towards the UK to help fill this gap with an apprenticeship recruitment drive, an initiative taken by the German Government.

The German Government has therefore begun offering attractive apprenticeship schemes to A-Level-qualified British youngsters, with 170 hours of free language lessons and pay of around £700 (after tax), plus relocation costs and visits home to the UK.

It is hoped that some of the talented British youngsters enticed to serve their apprenticeship will stay, filling a German skills gap.

In the UK we have had an unstable and fragmentary apprenticeship scheme - we need to develop a similarly strong and high-quality apprenticeship system as the Germans that would ensure we hang on to or young people.

We shouldn't see the German scheme as a bid to poach our best youngsters, but as a very stark wake-up call to British employers and the UK Government.

There is still a very long way to go to reach German standards, but perhaps we should look more closely at Angela Merkel?s suggestions and take a more German approach to apprenticeships.


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