Perspective: German vocational training model is worth studying

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 11:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 11:16am

The effort to train our young is a major endeavour of society. Resources allocated to education have taken a big chunk of the government budget for years. We are told that about 18 per cent of our schoolleavers may enrol in universities. Others may go overseas or enter local community colleges, aiming to get into the university system a few years later. University graduates, for the most part, will end up with a white-collar job.

There are, however, many who cannot climb this ladder and can't even get into a community college. They will enter the workforce or a training institution - vocational education, as we call it.

Vocational education is like an out-of-favour child - it is not our main concern

Unlike university graduates, who are regarded as professionals, these students are labelled technicians, creating the gap between white-collar and blue-collar workers. University training draws public attention but vocational education is like an out-of-favour child - it is not our main concern. Even the media do not find technicians' stories worth telling.

But there are many who go down this route and turn out to be artisans and workers of all kinds, needed to help our society grow. Administrations since before the handover have all tried to assist them, without much success.

If we could somehow change their status, if we could better their living conditions, if we could break that wall between the professional and the technician and modify our educational system so that the two collars may be pulled together, we might benefit everybody. In this regard, the German education system might be a good reference.

The Germans set up a principle early on that allowed worker representatives to participate in the decision-making process of their company.

The worker-management community has been the norm in Germany since 1920. That gives German workers not only pride, but also a sense of professionalism. Workers are trained to be able to multitask, so they can move from one station to another as the foreman or manager sees fit.

Status distinctions are not emphasised, which enhances the mobility from blue-collar to white-collar positions.

The average line worker has a higher skill level and more knowledge than workers in other parts of Europe, and management can trust those workers on the shop floor.This enviable state has a lot to do with the German apprenticeship system. That system has to be understood in the context of their education system as a whole.

Only a small percentage of working-class German children can enrol in a university. Instead, almost 70 per cent of their young start as apprentices. This education lasts three years or more, during which the apprentice receives low pay.

The system is so broad that it covers practically all sectors. Salespeople, mechanics and bakers will go through the same education process. That not only socialises young people into the requirements of work life in general, but it also provides job-specific training.

At the end of the process, if you pass a detailed examination, you will receive a formal certificate that shows your qualifications in your particular trade. These certificates are widely recognised by employers throughout Germany. Much like a university diploma, these certificates are also a source of pride.

The scheme is supported by the government and the private sector, with both sides sharing the training costs. It is successful because there is consensus among employers and workers as to its value.

These apprenticeship schemes provide students with good training and a well-regarded, professional qualification fitting their skill level. Students see themselves as achievers, as ones who have made it through a demanding vocational education, and take pride in it.

There is no arguing that Germany is the economic engine of Europe. Its apprenticeship training has contributed a great deal to that success story.

We cannot just copy that system in Hong Kong - indeed, we can't be sure the success of the scheme is not culture specific - but if we want to build a good vocational training programme, Germany is a fine example.

Ronald Teng is the founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education