Apprenticeship and Immigrant Integration in Germany

Seeing is Believing - Post No. 2
Blog Post
Oct. 26, 2016

As we complete day three of our tour, one topic we have been learning a lot about is refugee integration. Over the last five years, Germany has become home to millions of refugees fleeing poverty and political turmoil. Since 2015 alone, the country has received more than 1 million refugees, primarily from Syria and Afghanistan. 

While immigration has become an increasingly controversial (and divisive) issue in German politics, the business community has been largely supportive of more open borders. The reasons are pretty straightforward: an aging population combined with a declining birth rate is generating labor shortages in key industries. Nowhere is this truer than in the manufacturing sector, which has provided the foundation for German economic power and prosperity for decades. So the business community - along with many key political and community leaders - is hoping that a new wave of immigrant workers can ensure the country sustains its manufacturing prowess, keeping its large companies at home and its small and medium-size firms afloat. Just as Turkish immigrants helped fuel Germany’s postwar recovery in the 1960s, the hope is that a new generation of Syrian, Central Asian, and Eastern European immigrants can do the same. 

Not surprisingly, given the support from the business community, there has been a great emphasis on leveraging the country’s dual education system to integrate the new migrants into the labor market.  But what we’ve been learning in Wurzburg, through our visits to the local Chamber of Commerce, technical schools, and a manufacturing plant, is that the task is proving significantly harder than anticipated. While the challenge of immigrant integration is complex and multifaceted, three key themes keep emerging:

  • The immigrants are low-skilled: While many refugees fleeing Syria and the Ukraine arrived with advanced skills and education, the large majority of recent immigrants have been either low-skilled or, in the case of some professionals, unable to meet German standards.  And almost none arrive fluent in German. In fact, according to a survey by the federal labour agency in 2015, eighty percent of the refugee population lacks any professional qualification or high-school diploma.
  • But the jobs are not: Fluency in German, math, and information technology are far more important in manufacturing today than in the past – as our visit to the precision manufacturing firm Kinkele made abundantly clear. In addition to deciphering technical drawings and written instructions in German, the workers on Kinkele’s shop floor were engaged in a wide variety of complex tasks that involved advanced technology and coordination across team members. Kinkele’s relies heavily on the dual system to develop its workforce, but those apprentices arrive with very strong foundational skills in math and German.
  • And dual vocational education is not a second chance system: In its current incarnation, Germany’s dual vocational educational system has a limited capacity to serve low-skilled and/or non-German speaking adults. The system is built upon a foundation that starts in grade school when German students are tracked into either a college preparatory or a vocational high school. Students in the vocational high schools are being prepared for an apprenticeship for four or five years before they begin it (usually after the 9th or 10th grade). For young adults who are not educated in the German system, there are relatively few programs that allow them to transition into the apprenticeship system from outside the formal school system. In fact, when one of our groups members, Maria Flynn of Jobs for the Future, asked about on-ramp strategies like pre-apprenticeship or integrated education and training, the answer was something along the lines of “our pre-apprenticeship program is high school – period.”

It would seem that the highly structured, formalized, and standards-driven nature of the German apprenticeship system – long a key to its success – also makes it difficult to re-purpose apprenticeship as a tool for immigrant integration and skill-building. To give a sense of how poorly the apprenticeship system is working for the immigrant population, consider these statistics that the regional chamber of commerce shared with us: of the 13,000 refugees in the region of Main-Franconia, half of whom are under the age of 25, only 39 have been able to earn an apprenticeship certificate. 

That low number is certainly not due to a lack of effort on the part of local authorities, school leaders, or educators. In fact, our visits have revealed a deep commitment and desire to work with the local immigrant and refugee community. But if Germany is going to leverage its large and growing immigrant population to meet its labor market needs, it will need to either wait for the children of this generation to make their way through the schooling system, or re-engineer the current apprenticeship system to accommodate adult, non-traditional, and non-native speaking apprentices. Given what we've seen about German engineering over the last few days, I'll put my money on the latter. 

I’ll be back tomorrow with another installment, this one sharing some conversations we’ve been having on the tracking of students that begins at 5th grade (yikes!). Until then, Gute Nacht!