Doing it the German way?


It is often difficult to be in agreement with Andrew Adonis, but the one-time New Labour schools minister, now a cheer-leader for Michael Gove’s academies programme, does make some creditable comments about apprenticeships.

 As Adonis observes, just 1 in 10 school leavers are able to sign up for an apprenticeship and many of them are of limited value anyway, lasting only a few months and providing only basic levels of training. This can be contrasted with Germany where youth unemployment is less than half that in the UK and where apprenticeships have continued to be a fundamental part of German society with 90% of apprentices gaining permanent employment.

Adonis is also correct to argue that there must be increased state funding to establish more apprenticeships and that the public sector must take the lead. His call for the upgrading of the National Apprenticeship Service and, in particular, that UCAS could be used as a clearing house for apprenticeship placement is a serious one.

Those who consider apprenticeships to be key to improving young people’s chances in the labour market and that, as the Wolf Report argued, work-based learning provides much higher returns than classroom-based vocational education – will have been encouraged by Angela Merkel’s comments about the success of the ‘dual system’ in not ‘just trying to make our young people academic’ (Guardian, 03/06/13).

As we argue in The Great Reversal however, there are other reasons for the poor performance of UK apprenticeship schemes and why ‘cutting and pasting’ German-style apprenticeships – along with a new emphasis on technical education (Adonis is a strong supporter of Lord Baker’s University Technology Colleges for post-14 students) is, in and of itself, not going to restore the nation’s economic prospects.

The German apprenticeship system was a product of post-war ‘social partnership’, something which Merkel’s neo-liberal policies are designed to reverse.  Employers and trade unions established a national framework involving both legislation and much higher levels of state involvement and financing than the British ‘market state’ could possibly allow. As a result, the German apprenticeship system, which stretches well beyond the manufacturing sector, has a significance such that young people have only been able enter many occupations if they have completed the apprenticeship programme supporting them. Even so, for many years now, more young Germans follow the grammar school route to higher education than combine technical schooling with apprenticeship.

In the UK, where the situation is much worse since the industrial base has been largely replaced by an invariably low-skilled, poorly paid service sector, most employers simply don’t need apprentices.  Many have used government funding for them to upgrade existing employees to apprentices – for example, those completing short-term training courses for supermarket work.

When employers do recruit so that completing an apprenticeship will likely lead to future secure employment, applications massively outstrip vacancies with Rolls Royce schemes notoriously harder to get into than Oxbridge. This shows youth unemployment is a job, not a skills problem, even if the two are often confused.  A successful apprenticeship system would need to be part of a longer term economic regeneration and employment strategy – neither Coalition nor Labour, for that matter, have one.

While the major political parties are content to leave the banking and financial sector, not exactly renowned for recruiting apprentices, to smother  any return to economic prosperity, we can’t simply resurrect the manufacturing sector by ensuring that on new vocational courses and apprenticeships, trainees learn to ‘get their hands dirty’ as Lord Baker encourages! (

Rather than looking back to a lost industrial heritage, we can restructure through creating green jobs and developing a new type of service economy, but this means breaking with conventional approaches to ‘growth’.  Meanwhile, the German apprenticeship system will continue to survive and youth unemployment remain relatively low as long as the German manufacturing sector remains export orientated and in particular,  Chinese demand for German-made capital equipment continues to hold up. With growing crisis in the Chinese economy, this cannot be assumed.

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