Apprentice Appeal

Meet the Parents

Apprenticeship training schools are uniquely German, but applicant numbers are falling.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Falling interest amongst school-leavers in German’s excellent vocational training system directly affects youth unemployment rates and creates a lack of skilled workers across trade and service jobs.

  • Facts


    • In the next 10 years, the number of the students in Germany will drop by around 10 percent.
    • The number of students going to universtity in the country has doubled in a decade.
    • Germany has 340 occupations that require vocational training.
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Nicole Heinrich’s last parents’ night included snacks and candles in a group circle. But the information session wasn’t for parents of ninth-graders and Ms. Heinrich isn’t a teacher. She leads the training and human-resources marketing department at Otto, a German mail order company, and organized this evening at the company headquarters in Hamburg to convince parents of the value of an apprenticeship for their child.

Otto is the largest mail-order company in Europe with annual revenues of €12 billion ($15 billion), 60 percent of which comes from online sales. The group has more than 50,000 employees worldwide. It is, however, seeing a decline in applicants for its vocational training programs.

“Parents are important sparring partners,” said Ms. Heinrich. It is not just Otto that has recognized this. It is becoming a trend across Germany, with more and more companies directly interacting with parents of potential apprentices.

Unlike in other countries, it is obligatory for people in Germany to study for an apprenticeship if they plan to work in most trades.

“Today, parents play a significant role as advisers in the vocational choice of their children,” said Christian Langkafel, the managing director of Einstieg, a career-guidance firm. He has noticed a significant increase in the numbers of parents coming to his job fairs in the last five years.

The competition for apprentices is getting stiffer, as the pool of high-school graduates shrinks.  Many companies don’t need people with academic degrees. Firms want young people who are interested in one of the 340 occupations that require vocational training.

The companies hope to attract other or better applicants through the parents. In the next 10 years, the number of the students in Germany will drop by around 10 percent, according to Germany’s minister of education and the arts. At the same time, the share of young people who want a university education is rising.

It’s a downright “academization-craze,” according to Julius Nida-Rümelin, a philosophy professor at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich.

“The share of those who take up university-level studies has about doubled in a decade,” he told Focus magazine, adding that Germany’s dual-education system is much admired abroad.

The dual system describes the two education routes of academic and vocational schools. Unlike in other countries, it is obligatory for people in Germany to study for an apprenticeship if they plan to work in most trades. As well as the traditional trade jobs like building, plumbing, and so on, it is also mandatory for some service industry and sales jobs.

The vocational training system presents an alternative to a university education and is well respected in Germany.  Some of Germany’s top business people have gone the vocational route. Hilmar Kopper, the former chief executive of Deutsche Bank, began his career with a banking apprenticeship as his father believed it “couldn’t hurt.” And former Deutsche Telekom CEO René Obermann trained as an industrial clerk with BMW’s apprenticeship program.

Other countries don’t have training for these occupations or offer less rigorous programs.

Mr. Nida-Rümelin sees danger in that. European countries with lower percentages of academic students but a highly developed system of vocational training have a notably low youth unemployment rate, he said.

When should one apply for an apprenticeship, parents asked Ms. Heinrich and her colleagues. A year before starting, the Otto employees said, adding candidates for 2015 training year have already interviewed and some already hired. Most parents hadn’t realized that.


Stefani Hergert is an editor an Handelsblatt, where she specializes in education. Contact the author:

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