#Vitarkka: India rarely uses an apprenticeship model to teach young people a trade. Could such a system help the unemployed?

Millions of Indians are unemployed, but jobs stand empty because employers can’t find skilled people to fill them. With new technology transforming work across a range of sectors, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to man new machines and manage new processes.

One solution is enchanting employers, educators, and policymakers: European-style apprenticeship.

“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 essentially learning soft skills too. Trainees may be paid a stipend or if the training is on an essential skill, then there may be no payment for their time. The arrangement can last for two to four years, depending on the sector. And both employer and the Trainee generally hope that it will lead to a full time employment—for employers, apprentices are a crucial talent pool which should not be ignored. There are many psychological benefits to this as well. An employer who has trained an apprentice from the start will take great pride in how much skill an apprentice has developed. It also helps them develop a working relationship and sets a tone for their future full time job relationship.

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 or academically mediocre. “This has nothing to do with corporate social responsibility,” – HR manager at Deutsche Bank. “I do this because I need talent.” So too at Bosch.

“Building world-class diesel parts is hard,” an executive 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. It is the same thing in plant after plant: They are teaching more than skills. “In the future, there will be robots to turn the screws,” one educator said. “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. Skeptics 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 specialise 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. In Germany, it’s a reality.

So where’s the rub?

Why is it likely to be hard to transplant the German model? It starts with cost. Each German company has a different way of calculating the bill, but the figures range from $25,000 per apprentice to more than $80,000. It’s likely to be less expensive in India, even though firms will have to build programs from scratch, pay trainers (in Germany, the state pays), and in many cases funnel money into local high schools and community colleges to transform them into effective training partners.

You’d ask what costs means for ROI and the Germans will tell you to look beyond ROI to the longer-term benefits, for the company and society. Ultimately, of course, they’re right. But it’s hard to imagine many firms, generally focused on short-term financial gain, building the kind of in-house training centres which are there at every German plant: immaculate, state-the-art facilities, complete with robots, the latest computerised machining tools, and a raft of uniformed instructors overseeing busy trainees.

Another challenge, if anything, a more difficult one, has to do with the centralisation of the German system and the role the state plays in regulating what happens in private companies. What makes dual training work, every manager told us, are the standardized occupational profiles, or curricula, developed by the federal government in collaboration with employers, educators, and union representatives. Every young machinist training anywhere in Germany learns the same skills in the same order on the same timetable as every other machinist. This is good for apprentices: It guarantees high-quality programs where trainees learn more than one company’s methods, making it possible for those who wish to switch jobs later on. But it’s hard to imagine this level of state control or business-labor cooperation in India.

Raj Kaushik – Vitarkka

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