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The apprenticeship system in Germany: a training model?

University Professor

Sciences Po Grenoble, Grenoble Alpes University (UGA)

Barbara Ofstad

Doctoral student DBA

Business Science Institute

*Faculty member of the Business Science Institute.


Article originally posted on The Conversation France.

In Germany, the apprenticeship system guarantees a level of employment among young people that is admired at the European level. In addition, 47% of managers in Germany are trained in this way, followed by further education with diplomas as "technician" (Techniker) or "master craftsman" (Industriemeister). They are thus more numerous than the 39% of managers with an academic background (i.e. with at least a Bachelor's degree).

German apprenticeship training is often cited as an example in France, as a way to integrate companies into the workforce and as a bulwark against youth unemployment. However, 86% of German students in secondary education are enrolled in programs that combine work and school, while only about 25% are in France. Why is this so?

A long history

The dual apprenticeship system originated in the craft tradition in the Middle Ages. It was successfully adapted in the industrial age to become the cornerstone of the German vocational education system. It has, of course, undergone profound changes: new professions are being prepared for it, such as the digital professions or mechatronics, and cross-cutting skills such as digitalization and sustainability have been added.

In contrast to the single college for all young French students, the German school system allows students to choose a course of study at the end of the four years of elementary school, at the age of 10 or 11:

  • the path of excellence goes through the "Gymnasium" (the equivalent of the collège and the lycée) where approximately 40% of the young people in a given age group prepare for the "Abitur" (German baccalaureate) in 8 or 9 school years; if one adds the vocational baccalaureates giving access to higher technological education (Fachhochschulreife), this rate rises to more than 50% - whereas 80% of a given age group obtains its baccalaureate in France;

  • an intermediate level pathway through the "Realschulen" which, after 6 years of study, ends with the equivalent of a year of technological high school, often at the age of 16 or 17;

  • a lighter course of study, in the "Hauptschulen" or "Werkrealschulen", lasting 5 years;

  • or mixed forms of these different tracks, the "Gesamtschulen".

Traditionally, it was the students of the "Realschule" or the "Hauptschule" who chose an apprenticeship afterwards. Today, the boundaries are less clear. About 30 percent of all school leavers go on to an apprenticeship (often before going on to higher education), while some of the Hauptschulen and Realschulen students go on to other school-based training. Today, only about 45% of all high school and high school leavers go on to an apprenticeship.

In Germany, an apprenticeship prepares students for a specific profession and lasts between two and three and a half years. It is a dual system: part of the training takes place in a company where the apprentice is hired with an apprenticeship contract; the other part takes place at the vocational training center.

Apprenticeships are, by definition, at a pre-baccalaureate level of study, and end with an equivalence to the baccalaureate (although universities may require them to pass an exam before they begin their studies). The Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training advises the government and coordinates with the social partners in defining the content of vocational training.

Vocational education and training is the responsibility of the Ministry of Economics, which cooperates in this context with the Conference of Ministers of Education of the 16 Länder responsible for school education and the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. The majority of practical and manual skills are thus the responsibility of companies.

Successes and difficulties of the German system

Apprenticeship training in Germany is still very successful: 47% of all managers are trained through apprenticeships. Companies that recruit apprentices usually do so with a view to integrating young people into their organization on a long-term basis. In large industrial companies, managers draw up succession plans, often for five years: in 2021, they define how many apprentices they will recruit in 2022 so that they can take up permanent positions in the department in 2025 and 2026, once their apprenticeship is over.

The attractiveness of the German apprenticeship has suffered, however, in a society that seems to value academic diplomas more than professional diplomas awarded by the Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Many high school teachers have no particular knowledge of professional careers, and hardly advise this path to high school graduates, even though it allows them to obtain salaries comparable to those of graduates of academic training.

For the past fifteen years, "dual studies", similar to apprenticeships in higher education in France, have been gaining ground. In this case, studies alternate with phases of work in a company. In Germany, two models of dual studies coexist: the "integrated training" model ("ausbildungsintegriertes Duales Studium"), which includes a diploma awarded by the CCI, and the "practice-oriented" model ("praxisintegriertes Duales Studium"), which does not. But whether it is the traditional apprenticeship or dual studies with or without an ICC diploma, a contract with the company is the basis for a job that has a training purpose.

In view of the shortage of German workers with intermediate qualifications (Facharbeiter) and in view of demographic changes, it is likely that the number of apprentices will stabilize in the coming years. However, the system will need to become more dynamic and flexible in order to be able to adapt to current developments and to train for future key competencies. Solutions to the increasing virtualization of work, the digital transformation and, consequently, the dynamization of know-how are desirable.

Is the system transposable to France?

According to a study based on an international comparison, the key success factors of an apprenticeship training system are

  • governance by companies and social partners, who are responsible for training

  • curricula with a strong professional orientation, but also including transversal and evolutionary competences;

  • performance and profitability of the system for companies;

  • shared responsibility for the quality of training and quality control mechanisms;

  • the flexibility of the system to be able to adapt and evolve training courses;

  • Attractiveness of the apprenticeship system for young people;

  • efficient and transparent management. In France, there is still considerable room for improvement on many points.

The differences between France and Germany relate in particular to the role of companies in the training system and the advantages they derive from it. In Germany, the company recruits a young person - his or her place in the training center (or even in higher education for dual studies) automatically follows from this. In France, it is the schools that select young people who then look for a contract in a company necessary for the training - but the selection is made first by the school.

In addition, it is the training programs and their supervisors who largely define the content of the training programs, whereas in Germany, companies are fully involved in establishing the programs by representatives of employers and employees. Finally, German companies recruit "their" apprentices for a period of two to three and a half years, whereas French apprenticeships last on average two years.

The curricula in vocational training centers are characterized by the predominance of a school-based pedagogy and, above all, apprentices are not really integrated into strategic human resources planning. This weakness is nevertheless compensated for by the possibility offered to companies to create their own training centers, allowing them to see alternation as a real investment. The gradual approximation of forms of apprenticeship in higher education between France and Germany could have positive effects on traditional apprenticeship in France in the future.

Apprenticeships at the CAP and BEP levels are much less attractive to young French people because they do not open the door to further training. The situation of post-baccalaureate apprenticeships in professional bachelor's or master's degrees, engineering or business schools, equivalent to "dual studies" in Germany, is different and its image has improved considerably in recent years.

The typical careers of senior executives remain very different between France and Germany. In Germany, they still often start their professional life "at the bottom" and change companies infrequently (if at all). The typical career of a French executive, on the other hand, involves academic training and "grandes écoles" (both private and public), positions of responsibility from the start of professional life, and frequent changes of employers and positions.

Starting an apprenticeship at the CAP and BEP levels makes it almost impossible to aim for high-level positions in a large company, nor does it predestine one to well-paid technical positions with specialized skills. When they finish their apprenticeship, young Germans obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma, and many go on to higher education. Thus, the barriers to a greater appreciation of apprenticeship in France are mainly cultural.

But the digital transformation and the arrival of new generations on the job market are also disrupting these French-style hierarchies: they bring with them the need for a new management style, less hierarchical, based more on skills than on titles. In this context, apprenticeship at all levels of training could experience a renaissance in France and contribute to innovation. If we add to this the shortage of French skilled workers and technicians, is a change in mentality and systems not inevitable?

Article translated from French with


Read also...

Anne Bartel-Radic's articles on The Conversation France.

Anne Bartel-Radic's books & articles via

Barbara Ofstad's Twitter account.


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