Charlotte Falke creates technical drawings of power plant generators. The 23-year-old designer, a trainee at German industrial giant Siemens, spent a year at university before opting for a more vocational program. "I left because there was too much theory," she said. "I wanted more practice."
Falke is not alone. Over 50 percent of Germans enter dual vocational and educational training programs (VET) as a route into employment. They choose from 326 professional trades that include diamond cutters, aircraft mechanics and even chimney sweeps.
The system is widely credited with fueling the German export engine. Outside the country, some tout it as a solution to rising youth unemployment. So how does VET work — and is it worth the hype?
Theory and practice
"The basic idea is duality," said Ralf Hermann, head of the German Office for International Cooperation in Vocational Education and Training (GOVET). "That means integrating school-based learning with work-based practice."
Like most apprentices, Falke spends a few days a week at college learning foundation skills, such as math and language, as well as the theory underpinning her work. The rest of her time is spent mainly in the office designing products. The balance means she is able to produce technical drawings to industry standards and interact with her clients in English.
"A broader education in school is necessary to provide the soft skills that make responsible young people," said Hermann, who points to the need for flexibility in a rapidly changing digital economy. "Occupations have a broader sense of skills than mere training for one particular job."
Vocational training exists in many countries, but such schemes are rarely as popular as in Germany. More young people follow VET programs than go to university, even though many are qualified for further study.
Apprenticeships are standardized across the country — every product designer must study the same textbooks and be familiar with the same design tools — so employment prospects do not vary greatly by college or company. Most join their training company after three years of low-paid work and study.
This is important for the German economy, which has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the EU, and also the largest trade surplus. In 2017 Germany exported €1.279 trillion ($1.571 trillion) worth of goods and imported €1.034 trillion.
Some countries looking to balance their trade books are keen to learn from the German model. Ivanka Trump, adviser to protectionist US President Donald Trump, has expressed interest in bringing dual vocational training schemes to the US. Speaking to German weekly Wirtschaftswoche last year, Ms. Trump described Germany's apprenticeship system as "a great trailblazer."
"The perception of our international partners is quite right," said Hermann. "Part of the economic stability in Germany is due to the core elements of the VET, in that we produce a workforce that is ready for the labor markets."
History of training
One reason for VET's success in Germany is a culture of apprenticeships that stretches back to the middle ages. The practical component of study is so pervasive in German education that many young people even opt for semi-vocational university courses.
"This mixture you can't find in any other concept," said Marius Berger, a salesman at a German car manufacturer. The 27-year-old completed a dual study program in automotive retail, alternating 50/50 between three-month stints at university and internships at the company's headquarters. He graduated with a Bachelor's degree in 2012 and has stayed with the company since.
"I searched for the possibility to combine my love for German cars with a good economic study program," said Berger. "For me it wasn't an option to do a normal Bachelor degree without any practical part."
But feeding such systems into countries without a culture of vocational training poses problems. While Germany provides technical advice to countries looking to implement VET systems, such as Mexico and Russia, organizations such as GOVET are hesitant to describe vocational education as an export hit.
"A system that has grown in Germany under very specific conditions cannot just be exported to another country under very different conditions," said Hermann.