Some Americans think of apprenticeships as something of the past. Visions come to mind of medieval scenes of tanners, shoemakers, or cobblers. Instead, they may be more acquainted with the phrase “to learn a trade”. Regardless of terminology, choosing to bypass a traditional four year degree for a job-specific training is far less common in the United States than in Germany.
In Germany, half of graduates of high schools and junior high schools chose a track that combines training on the job with further education at a public vocational institution. This apprenticeship model is one reason why Germany has the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe and has been able to keep manufacturing jobs in the country.
To pull the veil from vocational education and to put a voice to the process, we interviewed an American living in Berlin who is currently in his second year as an apprentice at a German car company.
What kind of apprenticeship are you doing?
I applied at the car company to do a Mechatroniker Ausbildung (Mechanic/Electric apprenticeship). Mechatroniker is a combination of two words: Mechaniker and Elektroniker (Mechanic and Electronic technician). Since most of the vehicles in today’s market have so much technology involved, and with more and more electric vehicles on the streets, they combined both of the fields together, into the one apprenticeship.
What does an apprenticeship entail?
The apprenticeship for this lasts 3.5 years. The company I work at is fairly large and has apprentices from every educational year (1-4). In total, there are 14 of us.
There are 3 main parts of the apprenticeship, Arbeit, Schule and Innung (Work/School/Guild). They are spread out equally throughout the duration of the apprenticeship. For example, I have school one full week, and the next two weeks I am at work in the workshop and then the 4th week school again. That pattern repeats itself except every once in a while there is a week of Innung mixed in as well. Innung will only take place during a work week, as the schooling part is extremely important.
The work weeks are the practical half of the Ausbildung, where I am actually in the workshop, working directly with the vehicles. We work Monday through Thursday, 8 hours a day and then Friday is a 6 hour day, with an occasional 6 hour Saturday.
The school week is of course the theoretical part of the Ausbildung. Here, everything is taught from what the numbers mean on your cars’ tires and batteries, to error diagnostics, and how every part of a vehicle functions.
The Guild week is a combination of work and school. This is also like a giant workshop with a section of the room that also functions as a classroom. In this area it is just like school. We discuss with the teacher what exactly we will be doing, how to do it and the purpose of what we are doing. Then there are a large variety of vehicles to practice on. The variety of vehicles is nice because if you are employed at a specific company you only work with vehicles of that specific brand.
Do you pay to do an apprenticeship or does the company pay for you?
I am paid for the practical part of the apprenticeship. I receive a set amount of Euros per month, which increases slightly with every year of the program. My employer also pays for the school and guild courses as well.
What happens after you graduate from your program? Will you be hired by the firm or expected to work a certain amount of time for them?
Honestly afterwards I am unsure what will happen. There is no contract saying that I will have to work a certain amount of time at the company after I am finished. People can most certainly apply at the company to continue working there, but some choose not to as well. I really enjoy the job and I would love to work there after the program is finished, however even with a job contract it is unsure if I would receive a work visa or not.
Had you stayed in the States, what type of education do you think you would have pursued?
If I had stayed in the US, I really do not think I would have pursued a further education after high school. I just hate the thought of being so much in debt, so the whole college thing was something that never seemed to interest me.
What is it like working in your second language?
Working in a second language, especially one that you are not fluent in, is met with a mixture of emotions. Some days you feel like you have a really nice grasp on the language and grammar, and then some days people talk to you about an unfamiliar topic and you understand so little that you question if moving to a country with a different language was the best idea. At work I feel very confident talking with others, but school is different. Every day there are new words coming up. Oftentimes there are words coming, that I first need to translate to English and then after that still look up the definition because I have never heard the word.
How does your family at home feel about you pursuing a trade? How have Germans reacted to it vs. Americans?
I think my family is proud of my decision to do this. Most of the German people I have talked to think it is really impressive that I have the courage to leave home to live in a foreign land and learn a trade. The Americans that I’ve talked to about my apprenticeship think it is a very cool program.