The U.S. has its own tradition of apprenticeship going back many years. But like most kinds of vocational education, it fell out of fashion in recent decades—a victim of our obsession with college and concern to avoid anything that resembles tracking. Today in America, fewer than 5 percent of young people train as apprentices, the overwhelming majority in the construction trades. In Germany, the number is closer to 60 percent—in fields as diverse as advanced manufacturing, IT, banking, and hospitality. And in Europe, what’s often called “dual training” is a highly respected career path.
"Dual training" captures the idea at the heart of every apprenticeship: Trainees split their days between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job time at a company. The theory they learn in class is reinforced by the practice at work. They also learn work habits and responsibility and, if all goes well, absorb the culture of the company. Trainees are paid for their time, including in class. The arrangement lasts for two to four years, depending on the sector. And both employer and employee generally hope it will lead to a permanent job—for employers, apprentices are a crucial talent pool.
The first thing you notice about German apprenticeships: The employer and the employee still respect practical work. German firms don’t view dual training as something for struggling students or at-risk youth. “This has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility,” an HR manager at Deutsche Bank told the group I was with, organized by an offshoot of the Goethe Institute. “I do this because I need talent.” So too at Bosch.
“Building world-class diesel parts is hard,” the executive in charge of the program explained. “We’re very careful about who we hire. We’re looking for quality.” As for trainees, they learn quickly enough: A mistake on the factory floor is a million-dollar mistake—and they grow up fast, learning not just skills but responsibility. No wonder the apprenticeships are popular: At the John Deere plant in Mannheim, 3,100 young people apply each year for 60 slots, at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, it’s 22,000 applicants for 425 places.
The second thing you notice: Both employers and employees want more from an apprenticeship than short-term training. Our group heard the same thing in plant after plant: We’re teaching more than skills. “In the future, there will be robots to turn the screws,” one educator told us. “We don’t need workers for that. What we need are people who can solve problems”—skilled, thoughtful, self-reliant employees who understand the company’s goals and methods and can improvise when things go wrong or when they see an opportunity to make something work better.
A final virtue of the German system: its surprising flexibility. Skeptical Americans worry that the European model requires tracking, and it’s true, German children choose at age 10 among an academic high school, a vocational track, or something in between. But it turns out there’s a lot of opportunity for trainees to switch tracks later on. They can go back to school to specialize further or earn a master craftsman’s certificate or train as a trainer in the company’s apprenticeship program—and many do. What education reformers call “lifelong learning” is still a distant dream for most Americans. In Germany, it’s a reality.