Challenges and opportunities: The German training system in Corona times

Hubert Ertl,
Professor, Dr., Vice President and Director of Research,
Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB),

Low rates of youth unemployment and stable transitions from school to work are two of the most important outcomes of the German system of vocational education and training (VET). The core of the system revolves around the willingness of companies to offer structured, work-based training programmes, leading to nationally recognised qualifications that form the basis for further learning in the world of work or in higher education. Trainees have a contract with their training company and also attend vocational college for one or two days a week. Because of the two distinct learning venues coming together in providing training in comprehensive programmes the term “dual system” was coined.

Traditionally, over half of the relevant age cohort transitions into the dual system, resulting in over half a million new training contracts every year and an overall number of over 1.3 million trainees. One of the strengths of the system is that it is market-based, with companies free to decide whether or not to offer places and school-leavers to decide to apply for a place or to follow a different route. Ideally, the forces of supply and demand regulate this market, ensuring that training quality remains high and that the value of the resulting qualifications is recognised in the labour market.

As with all market-based systems, the German model of training is vulnerable to external shocks. The Corona-pandemic has undoubtedly been such a shock, affecting a number of key elements of the dual system.

First, there is a concern regarding companies’ ability to offer training places in a situation in which many of them are fighting for survival or are in the process of re-inventing their business model. The latest figures show a drop in the number of training places offered of around 8 percent. However, not only the supply of, but also the demand for training in the dual system is severely affected. With young people and their families regarding the economic environment training companies are operating in and the prospects of the economy more generally as uncertain, the option of staying on at school or moving into higher education is seen as the safer option. As a result of this and possibly other factors, the number of young people registering their interest in training has also dropped by around 8 percent. The combined effect of these changes on both sides of the training market will in all likelihood be a decrease in the number of new training contracts by around 50,000 in 2020 compared with 2019.

A second important impact of the Corona-pandemic has been the way training is conducted. During the prolonged periods of full and partial lockdowns, many trainees were not able to enter their companies, or their training had to be downscaled significantly. With training in the dual system relying on trainees learning their trade by engaging in real-life work, in relevant production and service processes, companies not operating at all or at a much less intense level, training processes were severely affected. The same was the case for vocational colleges which were closed for several months in the whole of Germany.

Third, assessment of training had to be postponed or called off completely. Most training programmes have an intermediate examination roughly half-way through the training process. This assessment is formative in nature, this means it gives feedback on the general progress of the trainee but does not count towards the final results, the overall mark the trainee is awarded at the end. A number of the important regulatory bodies that are responsible for this assessment decided to cancel intermediate exams that were scheduled at the height of the crisis. Of course, for the final examinations that determine whether a qualification is awarded or not and also determine the overall mark, this is not an option and the regulatory bodies are working frantically to make sure that final examinations can take place.

As is typical in times of crises, however, there are also opportunities created for developing ways that are not feasible in normal times. There has been, for instance, an unprecedented growth in distance and blended learning. In some sectors scenarios, simulations, and 3-D virtual spaces have been developed rapidly to substitute more traditional forms of learning. While there are clearly differences between economic sectors and according to the size of colleges and training companies, it seems clear that training venues that had invested in digital infrastructure and, probably even more importantly, in the digital expertise of training staff had an important advantage when the crisis hit. From a systemic perspective, creating favourable conditions for training in digital and virtual modes across all training venues has to be a priority for educational policy and practice. Only if there is sustained commitment of all relevant stakeholders to support training companies and vocational schools in this endeavour, the VET system in Germany will maintain its position and its contribution to the success of the German economy.


Expert article 2835

> Back to Baltic Rim Economies 4/2020

To receive the Baltic Rim Economies review free of charge, you may register to the mailing list.
The review is published 4-6 times a year.