50 years of the Vocational Training Act – a successful instrument for promoting innovation

Before 1969, the craft trades was the only sector of the economy to provide statutory regulations for vocational education and training in the skilled crafts in the Crafts and Trades Regulation Code. What does Andreas Ehlert, a master craftsman and President of the Chamber of Crafts and Trades have to say about 50 years of the Vocational Training Act?

50 years of the Vocational Training Act – a successful instrument for promoting innovation
Andreas Ehlert, President of the Düsseldorf Chamber of Crafts and Trades

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

Andreas Ehlert: Last Monday I was flying a drone. I was taking thermographic measurements and checking environmental and safety standards on firing plants. On 1 August 1977, when I was entered as a chimney sweep onto the Register of Apprentices of the Düsseldorf Chamber of Crafts and Trades—incidentally, alongside bakery apprentice Friedrich Hubert Esser— the first thing I learned was how to sweep chimneys properly. 

When looking back on the 60s and 70s, a period of much reform, the fact that educational modernisation impacted on much more than just the academic world is often overlooked. It was also concerned with reinforcing quality standards in vocational education and training. It focused on defining adaptable job descriptions and providing reliable quality standards for training and advanced training.

Its primary concern was, and is, ensuring that employees and consumers are able to rely on the professional quality upon which a specific certificate is based. A journeyman is an expert in their profession I know what he or she is capable of.

Secondly, and just as important, anybody who has successfully completed training can be confident that they are really competent in something. Vocational education and training is therefore also a schooling in self-confidence and self-assurance. Those who pass the journeyman examination have achieved something, and know that through hard work all doors will be open to them. They know they can do something useful, something that is needed by others, and that by taking the attitude which got them through their training, they are able to take control of their own lives. Those who have received training know that they can take responsibility—for themselves, for the company in which they work, and on behalf of the customer who requests their services. Those who acquire professional skills—in the company, in a competitive environment, when seeking practical solutions—also mature as an individual, and gain resilience, regardless of where their future path may take them.

Vocational education and training is valuable because it delivers useful specialist knowledge. Above all, however, it is a schooling in independence. This is because it opens up pathways to young people along which they can live their lives with a sense of empowerment and take responsibility for themselves.

Andreas Ehlert

The Vocational Training Act also provides a superb framework within which a specific type of innovation can circulate. When referring to innovation, our minds frequently turn to outstanding research institutions, state-of-the-art research departments in major companies and to the, in some degree, measurable research ratio—along the lines of “if you can reel in plenty of government research funding and run lots of projects, you're being innovative”. Vocational education and training, as set out in the Vocational Training Act, shows that there's another way to transfer knowledge and innovation, a way which provides creativity. Company-based training always involves training under competitive conditions and is always linked with the objective of solving specific problems. It is incremental, often small, improvements, and it is hidden and dispersed knowledge in very specific and unique contexts, which is transferred and recombined. The basis of this is rarely any prestigious or politically popular research project, but rather the evolutionary and situation-specific transfer of knowledge and its further development. The vast range of experience in the tens of thousands of companies which provide training is utilized for developing innovation in a sustainable manner—all entirely free of any political guidance. This is why it is extremely important that job descriptions remain adaptable and able to accommodate change. They need to incorporate changes in technologies and markets without delay and deliver the qualification subject, as closely as possible, to the real-time demands of the competitive environment. In this sense, the Vocational Training Act is also one of the most successful instruments imaginable for promoting innovation. It is an innovation culture which will outlast many short-lived start-ups. Back then, as part of my training, it was all about using the sweeper in the right way. My trainee is completing their “drone licence”.

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

Andreas Ehlert: Job descriptions are changing rapidly in these times of digitalisation as are the market conditions in which companies must operate. Vocational education and training must incorporate, reflect and support all of this. In future, flexibility and being open to new things will therefore represent even more important requirements. The legal framework of vocational education and training needs to be orientated even further towards accommodating this dynamic environment, but also towards defining occupations which, given all this change, have a strong and robust identity.

The whole world is talking about digitalisation now. However, the changes facing occupations and which VET law must absorb are not just of a technical nature. There are also many economic changes and therefore the interface between vocational and economic education and training will grow in importance.

We will have to do more for general education schools—as is currently the case in North Rhine-Westphalia—to consolidate economic education and training as part of training preparation. If vocational education and training is to become attractive again for young people, it will depend on strengthening connection with the social market economy and on communicating a realistic picture of entrepreneurship within the social market economy. The same applies to the role of employees in the company and in competition. If we in school achieve only an inadequate or distorted understanding of issues surrounding economic organisation and the associated roles of entrepreneur, employee and consumer, then we will also struggle to inspire and enthuse people for our occupations. Too many rush into secure positions in the public service and too many shy away from the competitive route via occupations and activities.

Andreas Ehlert

Andreas Ehlert was born in 1961 and works as an independent master chimney sweep and building energy consultant in Düsseldorf. Since 2014 he has been president of the Düsseldorf Chamber of Crafts and Trades and president of Handwerk.NRW e.V, the umbrella organisation for craft trades organisations in North Rhine Westphalia. From 2015 to 2017 he was an expert on the North-Rhine Westphalian state parliament’s commission of enquiry examining the future of the craft trades and SMEs.

And in future, we will have to place greater emphasis on the role of economic education and training within vocational education and training. In the craft trades, the matter is clear. If you want to advance, if you're looking for development opportunities, if you want to be your own boss, then sooner or later you have to address the question of whether you are confident enough to take on the responsibility of being an entrepreneur. In higher-level vocational education and training in particular, the specialist technical elements must stand alongside entrepreneurial elements. This is because, as an entrepreneur, not only do you need to be a master of your trade in the traditional sense, but you must also understand the general commercial conditions in which your company operates; you must learn to be an entrepreneur. Beyond the purely technical aspects, many trades are increasingly dependent on cooperating with other companies, preparing offers on the basis of cross-collaboration between trades, and on becoming involved in complex project planning. In this sense the school for master craftspeople has always been a school of entrepreneurship. And the success of vocational education and training will depend not least on whether it is suited as a school for learning independence and entrepreneurship.