Education for All: Breaking down the German dual vocational system

What do you want to be when you grow up?   What path do you need to take to get there?

In America these are the top questions plaguing high school students around the country.  Whether children are successful at being students or not, many are leaving our schools each year without a clue as to a prospective career.  What few question however, is the importance of a college education.

In the American school system it is generally believed that to gain importance and to earn a lot of money, one must have good grades and complete a degree beyond the high school level.  In order to find this success, many students eventually go to some form of university.  In 2013, 65.9% of American students leaving high school attended college.  Still unsure of what they want to do with their lives, they are only told this is what expected of them without having any specific path to take. “Take general required coursework while you figure it out,” is a common, frustrating response to this issue.

This leads to further problems, as in order to achieve their “dreams” many students must take on boatloads of debt.  According to a recent TICAS survey, 7 in 10 students who had graduated from college took on loan debt in order to achieve their degrees- which averaged around 28,400 dollars a student.  That’s a lot of money.  But for what?  According to a 2013 CareerBuilder survey, almost half of employees that were surveyed found first-jobs out of college that were not related to their degree, and almost a third never found a job based on the degree they received in college.  While college is a great path for many students to achieve their dreams, the reality is that many more students are left behind, taking extra years to develop a plan, graduating with a meaningless degree, or dropping out altogether .  In the meantime universities get richer (and more expensive to handle the growing student body) and many students leave college with poor chances and an incredible amount of debt.  But college is the only way to find success in life.  There is no other choice in school, is there?

In my previous post I described Germany’s unique and effective educational system, but what I did not fully elaborate on is the “so what?” aspect of their experience. Does the German approach to tracked education in high school lead to better results in their workforce?

The German Plan

As a quick recap on German education, at the end of their elementary school experience, students are tracked based on teacher feedback and parent input and placed into one of 3 high school options- a lower, middle, and higher system of education.  Students in the lower high school (Hauptschule) tend to work in service industry fields and learn life skills.  The Gymnasium, or the highest high school, is for students who are very strong academically and who wish to attend university for careers in fields such as education, medicine, or law.

What I am describing today however is the benefits of the Middle High School, or Realschule approach to education.

In the Realschule, schools utilize dual vocational curriculum, meaning that their students get paired with companies in order to prepare them for future careers in a related field.

The Dual Vocational Approach:

1) Students attend work fairs at their high schools where companies can explain what they do and showcase what a future would look like in their organization.  Job options range from engineering fields to health care to human resources.  When students find a workplace that matches their interests, they can apply to become interns for the organization.

2) Once companies receive their pool of candidates, they go through interviews and sign students on as interns.

3) Students then spend the remaining 3-4 years of schooling working as a paid employee for the organization while also attending school for classes relevant to their needed skills.  The format varies by company, but essentially students spend about half of their time in school learning skills and half the time applying the experience on the job, working closely with mentors.

4) At the conclusion of the their program, students take a test based on their skill set.  Students who pass earn a certificate declaring the students as a master of their craft, and grant them the right to work anywhere in the country in that profession.  But at this point there is a great impetus for the both the employer and the employee to continue on their relationship.  In most cases the workers end up staying with their initial company for their entire career- as they are highly trained and skilled in their occupation already, are familiar with their colleagues, and well compensated for their time.

This is in stark contrast to the American model, where typically students take a survey in high school through a counselor about careers that may be right for them, college is pushed for all (especially for students with higher grades), and many technical courses are relegated to students who don’t fit the system or who earn poor marks in school.  Unfortunately in America technical training in high school is underfunded and also lacks support from the teachers as a viable option for all students. So the question is, if college isn’t really a fit for every student, why aren’t vocational schools or programs being promoted more often in our educational system?  Are adults with vocational certificates earning significantly less than ones with college degrees?

The answer is no, in fact according to a 2012 survey through Georgetown University, Post-secondary Certificate programs are an ideal choice for students looking to make a middle class wage based on faster training time (1-2 years) and the financial investment required.   In fact, 40% of certificate holders earn more than the average person with an associates degree, and 24% earn more than someone with a bachelors degree.  Meaning a student who struggles in Social Studies but enjoys working with computers can still average around 72,000 annually if they are pushed in that direction.

As a result of the tracked educational path, Germany today is again considered an economic superpower with a strong manufacturing industry, and people are quite satisfied with their jobs.  One of the outcomes of this is that they have a very low unemployment rate of 4.7% currently.  This is because people are being put in positions that better align to their interests because the schools are set up to better suit their needs.  There is also no negative stigma around people who work in the skilled trades in Germany.  In fact, interns are taught to take pride in their work, and since they must pass a test to be certified in craft, customers can trust in the work that a certified craftsman does for them as well.

Ultimately in Germany, vocational training is an effective option for many students who do not need to go to college to find success.  In this system, students are placed into career paths at an earlier age and take the process much more seriously.  Companies invest time and money into making sure that students are well-trained and their internship programs allow them to better plan for their future employment needs.  Interns train on the job under the guidance of veterans so that they can best support and eventually replace the older employees when they retire.  This means much better productivity for companies as new workers come onto the job expertly trained in the position of need.

Company visits:

In order to see these programs in action, we went to two different German corporations: Siemens, the largest engineering company in Europe, and Pfleiderer, a particle board manufacturer.

At Siemens we had the opportunity to walk through the facilities and see what their dual vocational training program looked like in person.  In one room, I saw students programming code into a computer in order to make an object that could be printed out using a 3-D printer.  In another room we watched students learning to work together as a team to make different portions of a miniature assembly line.  The teacher would instruct on skills and general principles for the day to help the students in their progress.  Yet in another room, students were adjusting sawing machines to the correct specifications in order to whittle a particular product for a miniature truck they were building.  It is this type of relevant job-specific experience that a company values as it presents hands-on experience for their workforce and pride in their employees.  How proud would a student in their classroom be to come home from a day at school where they earned a paycheck and were able to create something real to share with their family?  With hands on training and purposeful work each day, I noticed no one seemed to be falling asleep in these classrooms.

Later we had lunch on top floor of Siemens, an amazing experience, but I mention it because even the master chef had interns earning their culinary degree under his leadership.  How long do we have to wait for in America before we even find out if we enjoy the field we are working in?  As a teacher, I know that I didn’t interact with students in a classroom until the fourth year of my college program, while in high school, these students are already practicing in their chosen field of study.

At Pfleiderer we listened to the story of an intern in their workforce who I’ll call Anna for purposes of anonymity.  Anna struggled in school as a child and had to work hard to earn decent grades in her early years.  When she went to Realschule, she wasn’t sure about what she wanted to do with her life until she went to a job fair and met the people at Pfleiderer.  Today, she is in her third year in the HR division of the company, she is knowledgeable, competent, and more importantly proud of herself and assured of a bright future.

It was powerful to see the passion in the workers we met and understand how this program was created to empower students who may otherwise get left behind in school.  One final thing that stuck with me was that with every industry leader we met, the same message kept coming across- for the companies involved in Germany, the social responsibility to help support and educate the next generation of workers came first.  The financial benefits were not the motivator, but rather the byproduct of this excellent system.

Though I have been touting the benefits of the dual vocational system, there are also some concerns to address about such a program as well:

Early Choices

The biggest potential concern is that 14-15 years old can be an awfully young age to decide your life.  For instance, I’m not sure at that young age I would have decided to become a teacher- though I would have likely found pride in a steady paying job that would have a guaranteed future as well.  But in the end if schools focused earlier on career options for students, many would likely be able to find something that fit their interests.


Tracking is never a perfect plan- as essentially students futures are often decided before they have fully matured.  One thing to note however is that parents in Germany do have input as well and students can switch paths if necessary.  In American education there are also more chances to start over than in Germany.  But ultimately the majority of students in the Realschule find success in vocational training programs that lead to successful careers.

A purposeful education should help to find the strengths in every student, and help individuals to pursue a path to make them successful.  We need to stop focusing on the “university for every child” approach when it clearly isn’t working.  Students need access to real opportunities earlier in their educational experience so they can identify their strengths and better plan their futures.  While any system faces its challenges- the German Dual Vocational system offers better choice for students who aren’t interested in attending university.  We need to offer better school-workplace partnership programs that are valued and supported as options for all students.  The American dream is not working for every child in our school systems, let’s wake up and make changes so that together we all can find success.


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