50 years of the Vocational Training Act – its origins, and what the future holds

Vocational education and training in 1969 saw a lot of unsatisfied young people. “If you want cheap labour, get an apprentice” was a line they were no longer willing to accept, and they were becoming actively involved in the apprentice movement. Our interviewee, Dr. Klaus Heimann, was there.

50 years of the Vocational Training Act – its origins, and what the future holds
Dr. Klaus Heimann, freelance journalist and former training expert at IG Metall

With the benefit of hindsight, what contribution has the Vocational Training Act made to the quality and success of globally-recognised, German vocational education and training?

Klaus Heimann: In July 1969, astronaut and Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. Back on Earth, 400,000 young people were gathering on the fields of a dairy farmer in New York state for the legendary four-day Woodstock open-air music festival. That was in August. And what was happening in the summer of ‘69 in the Federal Republic of Germany? Well, on 1 September the Vocational Training Act entered into force.

Events could barely have been more contrasting: After all, the moon landing represented technical progress as well as a bold and risk-taking attitude. At the time of the Vietnam war, the flower power movement was dreaming of transforming arms into flowers. This culminated in the Woodstock Festival.

And then there was the Vocational Training Act. No, it didn't make a huge impact on the world. As I recall, even in Germany nobody really noticed as the body of legislation was passed by the German parliament on 12 June 1969. 

Parliament passed the resolution: The fragmented statutory provisions within commercial law relating to chambers and the craft trades were transferred into a clearly structured statutory—and therefore public—framework for vocational education and training. And that was just as well.

In 1919, unions had, for the first time, called for a unified Vocational Training Act. It would be a further 50 years before the basic law for vocational education and training was announced in the federal gazette in August 1969.

The unions remained very unhappy with the first Vocational Training Act. Their criticism was that this could not produce a modern, contemporary form of vocational education and training. Instead, it merely cemented inadequate conditions in place. For the unions, the training of apprentices and trainees in companies was too focused on the needs of the company and not on the overall needs of society, let alone on development opportunities for the individual.

They explained that training was highly specialised, unsystematic, pragmatic—due to insufficient theoretical depth—and in some cases should not be referred to as learning at all, but more as exploitation. The Vocational Training Act did nothing to change this company-based practice.

A review from the time by the Industrial Union of Metal Workers (IG Metall) was titled “Society's poor relations” and read as follows. “The apprentice of 1919, 1969 and 1970 onwards, was, is, and shall remain the poor relation in society. The vocational education and training bill devised in Bonn ensures that almost everything will remain as it ever was. The apprentice of tomorrow shall remain at the mercy of their employer. For them there is no public training facility, no state system of financing for contemporary vocational education and training, and no adequate provisions relating to vocational school teaching.” 

Despite their criticism of the new Vocational Training Act, unions made use of their opportunity to take part. This included involvement in the development of training occupations, in the application of statutory requirements for company-based training, involvement in vocational education and training and federal state committees and in the Federal Institute for the Vocational Education and Training Research, the predecessor of the current BIBB. They were always involved, and that was a good thing.

All in all: In 1969, the Vocational Training Act ultimately signalled the start of increased debate within society on the vocational education and training, a debate which then took place over the following years. The Act essentially formed the foundation upon which vocational education and training was then constructed.

Dr. Klaus Heimann

Dr. Klaus Heimann completed training as a machine fitter in a medium-sized industrial company and many years later became head of training at IG Metall. He has gained practical experience of the Vocational Training Act in the company, in the region and in the federal government. Today he works as a freelance journalist, consultant and moderator in Berlin and is a member of two vocational education and training committees.

How important is the Vocational Training Act in overcoming the future challenges within vocational education and training?

The question which must first be asked is: What are the actual challenges which vocational education and training is facing?

It is obvious that dual vocational education and training is “under pressure”.

  • There has been a fall in interest among young people and their parents in dual training, and not just due to demographic changes.
  • Companies are finding it really difficult to make themselves attractive to young women.
  • The integration of school leavers with special requirements within the training course is not adequate (decreasing integration capability).
  • Company participation in training is constantly falling.
  • There's growing competition with “vocationalised” institutes of higher education.
  • The necessary momentum has not been present in making social changes such as globalisation and digitalisation part of vocational education and training.
  • So far it has not been possible to develop a continuing vocational education and training system which attracts people and companies and provides them with comprehensive support in the transformation process.
  • Company-based and vocational school training personnel, and the training personnel needed for the tasks involved in continuing education and training are not, themselves, sufficiently trained and do not receive adequate further training.

So it’s ideal that the Vocational Training Act is currently on the German parliament’s agenda. Isn't this a great opportunity to find answers to the eight challenges?

The problem is, the stakeholders in the grand coalition are a long way from this. Parliament has been presented with amendments, the introduction of the minimum remuneration of trainees being the highlight. But this is really nothing more than pussyfooting around.

The hope remains that two important aspects which have proved successful since 1969 within vocational education and training continue to function. This concerns vocational education and training research and the various capabilities of stakeholders’ institutional dialogue.

If future issues are discussed, focused and flanked with bold political solutions (instead of administrative tedium or obstacles), then something good could still come of the future for vocational education and training in the company.