Qualification for gainful employment as initial vocational education and training - will this remain the ultimate solution?

Wolf-Dietrich Greinert

There is a growing interest in models of dual and alternating initial vocational education and training in view of the high youth unemployment rates in the southern EU Member States. Referring to the newly formulated EU strategy in the field of vocational training policy, however, the author warns against attempting to solve social problems in the short term by transferring the German initial training model. It becomes clear in the historical perspective that this particular arrangement has developed over many years and has entered in the course of time into highly complex interrelations with numerous other social subsystems. Despite the many benefits of the cooperative training system, the author concludes by pointing out that, even in Germany, the problems of youth unemployment and social integration of young people have not been fully solved yet and states the need for reforms.

Strategic course correction in European vocational training policy?

The "German dual system" of vocational education and training is a hot topic once again. Many countries are turning to German agencies for information about our education and training system. Under the title of "Vocational Education and Training in Europe. Perspectives for the Young Generation" the European ministers of education in a conference held on 10th and 11th December 2012 in Berlin focused once again on the catastrophic training situation and the extremely high unemployment rates that young people in many Member States of the EU, especially in the southern states of the Union, are confronted with. One notes with growing astonishment the memorandum adopted in this context in which the strategy for tackling the identified shortage is codified.1 The introduction reads: "Work based dual or alternance-based training is the focus of the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training." Later in the text, this political orientation is confirmed once again: "We, the Ministers agree that dual or work based training should be examined so as to become of model of vocational education and training systems in Europe."

At this point at the latest the question arises to what extent the strategy formulated in the memorandum corresponds with the model of qualification for gainful employment, which so far the EU has proclaimed as its political mission and has striven to implement practically: the market-oriented training model of British provenance. If we try to interpret the text of the new memorandum according to usual concepts of occupational pedagogy, however, we cannot but understand the keywords "dual" and "alternance-based" as symbols for a radically different model of education and training that has developed distinct structures especially in Germany and France. Does this foreshadow a strategic course correction? We hope so.

Highly appreciated though the apparently quantitatively and qualitatively effective dual and alternance models clearly are, however, we should bear in mind that they are arrangements that have come about in a prolonged process of development, mostly in connection with specific national backgrounds, and that over the course of time have entered into highly complex relations with many other societal subsystems. As an integral part of national work cultures, these training structures can be copied and transfered only to a limited extent. Despite considerable material and human efforts, no country has succeeded in installing a "dual" training model on the German pattern.

Cornerstones of the German vocational education and training system

This incomparability is based essentially on three central fundamental elements which the system has generated during its development and which have persisted up to now:

  • a robust control system,
  • a specific model of socialization and
  • an autonomous and independent system of legal regulations.

They are outlined below.

The corporatist control model

Unlike England and France, Germany did not respond to the decline of its pre-modern production system and training model with the development of a new form of qualification. The extensive restoration of the traditional form of the education of craftspeople within the system of estates, which was introduced in the high middle ages and since the last third of the nineteenth century has become the model for qualification for gainful employment below the level of the academic professions in the German cultural area, has, however, developed sustainable prospects for the future.

This was exposed to vehement criticism as an ultimately reactionary activity, above all for absorbing the corporatist control model associated with the old guild system into the successor system. But there is also a positive side to this rupture of the dualism between government and society through the use of feudal organizational forms: the renewed establishment of intermediate instances - the chamber system and the guild system. The question must be posed, a crucial one in terms of system-theoretical considerations, whether the differentiation of this seemingly pre-modern subsystem is able to perform an important service for society.

In retrospect, the answer to this has to be yes. The restored craft organizations were not only interested, they were also, as the future would show, able to establish and/or maintain a balance between individual/partial aspirations and higher-level policy-shaping tasks. Clearly industry had so much faith in the principle of "self-regulation" of the training services provided by the companies that they adopted it lock, stock and barrel in their own training and made it a permanent part of the dual system (cf. Greinert 2012, pp. 80 f.).

This new kind of corporatism relies on traditional forms of organization, but creates a specific form of political modernization through productive cooperation between government and private initiative. In any event the German education and training model has constituted itself in accordance with its two controlling powers as a stable combination of two fundamental elements: a free education market open to anyone interested and a set of legally established rules: Companies can train, but do not have to; if they do they submit to the relevant statutory regulations.

The occupational socialization model

It was one of the most brilliant ideas of German capitalism in the take-off phase of industrialization (...) to transform the in essence guild and craft oriented - and that means (...) labour and company integrated - education system into an industrial system and to raise its own core of trained industrial and later office workers to supplement the influx of expertise from the crafts. This type of vocational training gave German industry a comparative advantage over competitors on the world market that lasted a hundred years and created the workforce that for a long time was the most highly skilled in the world."

The industrial sociologist Martin Baethge (2004, p. 14) uses this Hermann Schmidt quotation to illustrate the specific structure and function of the "German system" of vocational education and training and stresses at the same time the prominent role of industry in the necessary redevelopment of the for the most part traditional model that goes all the way back to the period before World War I in large-scale industry (cf. Greinert 2012, pp. 87 ff.). The optimized training system that industry rapidly developed in the 1920s and 1930s was strongly influenced by the rationality of the then emerging science of ergonomics and comprised three main dimensions:

  • an institutional dimension, with training workshop and factory school,
  • a methodological dimension, with psychological aptitude tests and standardized courses and teaching materials, and
  • a vocational-systematic dimension, with legally defined provisions with regard to job descriptions, training schedules and examination requirements for every "training occupation" (regulatory instruments).

Strictly speaking there were two fundamental elements of the existing middle estate policy of the Empire that industry did not call into question: the "self-management" already mentioned and, secondly, the occupation-oriented character of vocational training. German industry rejected the Taylorist-inspired fragmentation of the training process followed by many countries in Europe and opted for a new type of figure, the "skilled worker". This was a crucial policy decision in favour of a highly qualified form of vocational education and training (see also the interview with Günter Cramer, Klaus Heimann and Hermann Schmidt in this issue).

The "social generalization of the occupation as a meaningful medium for the constitution and reproduction of training structures" that was thereby promoted by industry was in particular "the historical basis for the differentiation of a self-referential vocational training system" in Germany "that is (relatively) independent of the school system and the individual enterprise" (Georg 1998, p. 181). However, maintaining the occupation-oriented character of training has other socially important effects as well: Using the category of "occupation" gives a training system the ability to translate social, economic and educational problems into the system's own logic.

Apparently it is the "surplus functions" of the occupation principle that are currently making it highly attractive to the world of politics. These properties are only effective, however, if the occupation-oriented vocational training courses are designed as complex, long-term and systematically structured programmes that resemble inclusive processes of socialization and role playing rather than forms of training developed merely for the purpose of optimising acquisition.

The autonomous and independent legal system

It is clear that comprehensive legislation should be the most important component of a vocational education and training system. Germany's first Vocational Training Act, adopted in 1969 after lengthy debates, is seen by experts rather as a "capstone" of the dual system, mainly because it took fifty years to bring about such comprehensive legislation (see Greinert 2012, pp. 132 ff.). Despite important clarifications for the employee side, however, that Vocational Training Act was seen on closer examination to merely legitimize the status quo in vocational training policy.

The fact that a quite orderly form of German vocational education and training managed to get by for practically half a century without comprehensive legislation calls for a plausible explanation. This can rely mainly on the category of "tradition" that was upheld by numerous institutions that had internalised their tasks and the corresponding behavioural patterns over long periods.

While a law governing vocational training is not exactly rendered superfluous by such a strong tradition, its functional effect is nevertheless shifted in such a constellation much further in a system-constituting direction: Through its specific differentiation of the practice of vocational qualification, a Vocational Training Act consolidates the close involvement of said practice in the occupational culture, in this case industrial, indicating that the presence or the creation of (isolated) training institutions does not come anywhere near to guaranteeing the functioning of a sustainable system of qualification for gainful employment.

Vocational education and training in the social context

The decisive relationships the vocational education and training sector has with other important societal subsystems under the perspective of the "occupation" category reveal a specific structural pattern in German industrial work culture that is not comparable in its details to any other country. Let us briefly list the main points of intersection of this complex functional network:

  1. Industrial and other "skilled labour" form the basis of a specific labour market segmentation in Germany, characterised by a structure of "occupational labour market segments". The exchange relationships on these markets are regulated by a system of generally accepted vocational certificates, the basis of which is a tradition of professional standards.
  2. The principle of "skilled labour" also preferentially determines the organisation of work in Germany, its typical trait being a relatively flat hierarchy with correspondingly reduced control and power functions. Vocational expertise and job experience make skilled workers/personnel largely independent of close job instruction and supervision. The ability of this type of qualification in principle to adapt to changing or altered job requirements, on the other hand, gives companies a great deal of leeway in the deployment of personnel.
  3. The vocational education and training system and the principle of "skilled labour" characterise the labour law culture and the production relations in Germany. This is readily understandable in the case of individual labour law, which is explicitly conceived as "occupational law" and is protected by the constitution (Article 12 of the Basic Law). Only rather indirect references to the occupation principle can be made out for the collective labour legislation that governs the relationship between capital and labour.
  4. The German trade unions - as a subject of collective labour legislation - that developed in the 19th century out of associations of craftsmen and skilled workers were guided for a long time with regard to their organization and strategic action perspective by the occupation principle and/or the category of skilled labour. Their current strong position as "social partners" of the employers' associations traditionally derives from their mass base in (large-scale) industry, where also the specifically German "Works Constitution" (industrial relations code) with its participatory rights - including that of participation in company vocational education and training - had the best chance of prevailing.
  5. The occupation principle and occupational skilled labour also shaped the "normal working relationship" that is characteristic especially for male workers and became the employment structure standard and social standard under industrialism (enterprise-integrated eight-hour day, five or six days a week for 40 or more years of continuous employment).
  6. The traditional system of social protection with its focus on the occupation concept and permanent employment turns out to be closely associated with this working hours regime in Germany. The great social integration function of the typical German occupational socialization model has now been impressively confirmed by empirical studies (see Konietzka 1999).
  7. Occupational skilled labour as the basis for a specific "social model" of industrialism with a quasi-standardised training, employment and career path refers not least to direct effects on the identities of the working persons, their lives and their mental and moral development. Numerous empirical studies reveal a strong identification of employees with their occupations by themselves and others in the German cultural area. The occupation is their primary source of self-esteem as well as the orientation framework for the image employees have of themselves and with which they present themselves to their environment.
  8. German industrial capitalism and the German vocational education and training system reflect a strongly production-oriented economic model, the core of which is a "productionist conception of work" (cf. Baethge 2004). It traditionally ignored service industry occupations as a residual category, even long after service activities had come to account for the majority of employment relationships in Germany.

Limits of transferability of a successful model

As the analysis of the German dual system of vocational education and training shows - and the same is true for the alternance model - the willingness of private (and also public) enterprises to function as training providers is ultimately crucial if it is to function. In numerous projects for international cooperation in vocational education and training, the experience of the author has been that the majority of companies reject exactly this crucial component. In their opinion, qualification for gainful employment is a matter for the public sector, and neither generous subsidy programmes nor legislation have been able to make the slightest change in that rejection in countries without a training tradition.

On the other hand, the fact is often overlooked that the two cooperative training systems in Germany and France are also unable to solve the training problem for all young people - and hence the problem of youth unemployment as well. In Germany, there are now nearly 300,000 adolescents and young adults in the so-called "transition system" (in the year 2011: 294,294 young people; see BIBB 2012, p. 224) and have few prospects for subsequent training contracts in the dual or school training system. Although a portion of the young people acquire a general school-leaving certificate or an accredited basic qualification (cf. Beicht 2009), the situation of the vast proportion of them can be described as precarious. Thus the dual system in Germany at best mitigates the qualification problems and social problems of young people, but does not entirely solve them. This means that the government has to take corrective action.

It is clear as well that Germany has for years been discussing a sustainable reform of its vocational education and training system, since it is evidently eroding. For about three decades the companies have been continuously scaling back the number of training contracts, and at the same time the "transition system" has grown vigorously. School vocational training can be regarded as stagnant. The social partners vigorously reject it as an institutional option for supplementing the dual system.

In connection with this development, the following three positions have been developed as strategic guidelines:

  1. The first relies on a revival of the dual system in the face of shrinking cohorts of school graduates. It also accepts some proposals of the European Union, insofar as they do not challenge any fundamental training criteria. This position has characterised the official vocational training policy in Germany for years. It is defended mainly by the social partners and the major political parties.
  2. The second strategic guideline follows the widespread international trend to rapidly advance the academisation of education (college-for-all), and also to subordinate qualification for gainful employment to that trend. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, this type of education policy has already made great progress. For years, international organisations and education experts have been pressing the German Federal Government to join this trend.
  3. A third perspective strives for an "education system architecture with parallel educational pathways" (cf. Rauner 2011), that is, to build a separate trade career path next to the high school/academic educational pathway, said trade career path being equivalent to an academic career from the entitlement point of view, i.e. it also provides full university access (see Dybowski et al. 1994; Rauner 2011).

There can be no serious discussion about the first two positions in terms of a sustainable transformation of the German dual system - and that, after all, is the only thing that matters. Related political action can neither eliminate any current problems, nor ensure the future viability of the dual system. It is hopefully no empty gesture but a sign of a first - bitter - insight regarding a failed training policy of the European Union that the qualification-building power and the social power of cooperative vocational education and training systems has now been invoked once again by the assembled European ministers of education. Their shared responsibility in the desperate situation of young people in the southern Member States is not in doubt, because where has anything decisive happened in the field of vocational training policy in European countries? Given the apparent inaction in this area, one gets the impression that it is exclusively the highly explosive problem of youth unemployment that has disturbed the people responsible and inveigled them into the "tunnel vision" described above.

The only position that is significant for the German situation is the third, marking a strategy line that has been followed for years by Austria and Switzerland, countries that have a training system very similar to that in Germany. Both of those neighbouring countries have realised that it is all or nothing this time. So finally the German vocational education and training protagonists should take good note of this: "Most Germans are not looking for a job, they want an occupation, one that is forever, a life-long love affair. And governments that do not attend to that love affair must fall, sooner or later. In Germany, if you have an occupation you are somebody, if you have a job you do not amount to much." (Fichtner 2005, p. 103).


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Prof. Dr. phil., Professor for Vocational Education a. D., Technical University Berlin

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 3/2013): Paul David Doherty, Global Sprachteam Berlin