Sir Peter Lampl reports on a recent visit to see successful apprenticeship training in Munich and Basel.

As he won a new term in the weekend elections in Bavaria, the state premier Horst Seehofer made much of the low levels of unemployment in the region. Just 3.8 per cent of Bavarians are jobless (lower than a German 6.8pc average) and youth unemployment is not much higher, at 4.2 per cent.

At the heart of this economic success is a system of apprenticeships that has served Germany well for over a century, and for more than 50 years in its current form. Last week I was in Munich, alongside colleagues from the Boston Consulting Group who have been looking at how we can improve English apprenticeships, to see the secrets of their success.

Visiting a globally successful auto parts manufacturer, Webasto on the outskirts of the city, it was hard not to be impressed by the level of commitment to youth training that this company makes. Within its 3250-strong German workforce, seven per cent of places at any one time are provided to apprentices.

While on their three year programme, the apprentices spend blocks of time at a local vocational school. They will also typically work in a half-dozen different areas of the company. Although the company has manufacturing employees at one of its German plants (much of the blue collar activity takes place in Eastern Europe or Asia) the majority of its staff and apprentices are in white collar roles.

One of the apprentices I met was Isabell, who is in her third year at Webasto. She is training as an industrial administrator, a job that involves sales, customer management and use of information technology.  Her apprenticeship has seen her work as an IT assistant, a sales administrator, in the logistics team, in the assistant managing director’s office, in marketing, purchasing and corporate communications.

In each role, she is expected to work for up to six months. During this time, she also spends days or weeks at a time learning theoretical aspects of her role at the vocational college. At the end of her three years, she has to sit externally marked exams in accounting, business studies and social studies. The Chamber of Commerce ensures quality control, and a growing number of apprentices goes on to study at university for a degree supported by the company.

What most impressed me was the commitment of the employer, who select apprentices, provide trainers on-site, facilitate time at the college and pay an apprentice wage of up to £750 a month. They don’t do this for altruistic reasons. They are clear that they want and expect 90 per cent of their apprentices to stay with them in full-time work, helping develop the sort of skilled workforce that turned a family firm from Munich into a global £2 billion business.

Needless to say they have many more applications than apprentice places, but more than half of German firms offer apprenticeships, so young people have many more such options that combine work with study.

There is clarity to the German system which some may see as inflexibility, and it can take time to adjust a curriculum as it must be agreed across a sector. “We wouldn’t just change the curriculum because Mercedes wanted it changed,” as one senior teacher put it. “We’d need BMW and Volkswagen signed up to the change too.” Overall, having to agree a national curriculum is a net benefit as qualifications are consistent between firms and are recognised throughout Germany as a result.

After Munich, a visit to Basel helped explain why the take-up of vocational education in Switzerland, at over 60% of young people, is among the highest in Europe. Although their system has greater flexibility, it shares with the German system a strong core curriculum, huge employer buy-in and acceptance among middle-class parents that apprenticeships are as valid a route for their sons and daughters as a university course.

The Swiss place a big emphasis on the ability to transfer between vocational and academic routes right through the educational process, and many trainees go on to take degree courses. But, in Basel, which has strong pharmaceutical and chemical companies, the professional education process is crucial for competitiveness. Interestingly, they talk of professional rather than vocational education.

Here, a tripartite system helps ensure trainees have the right skills to be technicians in the firms that employ one in six people in the city. The Aprentas laboratories, funded largely by industry – its main sponsor companies are NovartisBASF and Syngenta – but working with a national and Basel curriculum, have state of the art equipment. The firms financially support the training facility per trainee, in addition to the support they get in their companies and a trainee wage, allowing such investment in well-equipped laboratories.

But, again, the one thing that struck me most was the huge investment and commitment made by employers, attitudes shared with their German counterparts. Yes, they saw their training as a social responsibility. But they are successful businesses, and know the system cuts recruitment costs, ensures well-educated staff familiar with their company and provides competitive advantage.

Next month, the Sutton Trust will publish a report based on a major new analysis by the Boston Consulting Group of vocational and professional education in England, and will provide policymakers with ground-breaking recommendations based on the lessons learnt from Germany, Switzerland and other advanced countries with strong vocational and professional training in place.

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