Bolstering Apprenticeships in the US: Lessons from Germany

| February 6, 2024 |

From October 15 – 21, 2023, nine representatives of the State Economic Development Executive (SEDE) network visited Bonn, Cologne, and Stuttgart to learn about Germany’s dual education and training (Dual VET) system, aiming to expand apprenticeship in the US. The German model of apprenticeships is considered “dual” because it combines theoretical training at a vocational school with practical training in a certified company. The student applies through the employer, and once selected, their three-year program begins, including instruction at a publicly funded vocational training school. Students spend 25% of their time at a vocational school and 75% of their time at the company.  

During the visit, the delegation met with German economic development professionals, government officials, employer associations, unions, vocational schools, training centers, and manufacturers. This visit allowed the delegation to gain firsthand insights into Dual VET system, its policies and funding mechanisms, and which social partners were involved. The delegation had a few primary research questions going into the trip including, but not limited to: Who are the relevant social partners involved in the dual vocational education training (Dual VET) system? How is the Dual VET system funded? And what are some practices that can inform apprenticeship program expansion in the US? 

Takeaway #1: Employer investment is key to the success of the Dual VET system in Germany. Employers pay monthly salaries to apprentices (typically €600 – €1300) as well as any costs associated with training, while the German government funds the vocational schools. Major companies often have in-house training centers which allow them to tailor programming specifically to emergent workforce needs. There are also multi-company private sector solutions to provide this training for companies who do not have the capacity. Most notably, a focus on competence-based training leads to an extremely high retention rate for apprenticeships in leading companies (e.g., Porsche) in addition to a significant return on investment. 

Takeaway #2: Germany’s success with dual track degree programs can serve as a model for the US. Germany’s dual track degree programs are public-private partnerships that offer university studies alongside corporate partners, providing both intensive academic studies and practical work-integrated learning experience while earning a Bachelor’s degree. Companies must apply to the school for accreditation to participate as well as provide students with a monthly stipend to support them through the program. To maintain program effectiveness, university directors engage frequently with employers and require professors at the school to have at least five years of work experience in the field. 

Takeaway #3: Auxiliary organizations, especially chambers and unions, are integral for supporting stakeholders in the Dual VET system. Every social partner participates in the Dual VET system and, in theory, an equal partner in the consensus-building process. Chambers of Commerce and Industry monitor vocational training and appraise companies’ aptitude to provide training for larger companies, while Chambers of Handicrafts focus on smaller companies. Unions, alongside employers and the government, are the third pillar in the dual system of apprenticeship and are currently advocating for proper compensation for apprentices as well as affordable housing options. 

With these key questions answered, the SEDE delegation found that communicating the return on investment of apprenticeships will ultimately be the key to bolstering support in the US. Clarifying misconceptions and biases around vocational training is important to change overall attitudes in the US and advance this work as a viable alternative, or complement, to traditional academic education. Looking forward, the delegation is already working on some exciting new developments in this space. In Arizona, the Senior VP for Workforce Solutions and Partnerships led the development of the state’s first-ever Multi-Employer Registered Apprenticeship Program for the semiconductor industry. Governor Hobbs announced the $4 million investment from the Arizona Commerce Authority, along with other collaborative programs, to support apprentices as they advance in their training. 

The SEDE delegation supports future learning exchanges as they can provide new perspectives on these issues and opportunities to dive deeper into innovative solutions. This space will be one to watch closely moving forward as more employers, education institutions, and governmental bodies come together to invest more strategically in work-based learning. For more information about the Dual VET system, read the delegation’s full report here.