When I finished secondary school – which I did in Germany in 1972 – I did not, at that time, go to university. In fact at that point I had no intention of going to university at all, which is remarkable in the light of the fact that I have now been in charge of two such institutions. But back then I wanted to get into employment, and I wanted to do this while gaining a further qualification. So in August of that year I joined Dresdner Bank AG, then one of Germany’s three major banks, as an apprentice. The apprenticeship scheme saw me spend four days a week working in my local branch of the bank, and on the fifth I would go to a nearby vocational school (‘Berufsschule‘) where I had lessons in economics, accounting, finance and banking. In 1974 I concluded my apprenticeship with the formal examinations, and after passing these I had become a qualified banker, or Bankkaufmann. Maybe that profession doesn’t get the respect now that it had then, but it certainly was a valuable qualification.
I was reminded of this part of my personal history when I recently read an account of a young woman working as an apprentice at the technology company Cisco. As she works for the company, she is picking up several formal qualifications, including the company’s Cisco Certified Network Associate award, and a Diploma in ICT Professional Competence; and she has already had an article published in a professional journal.
The problem is that society regards apprenticeships as valuable, but appropriate mainly for those who do not have the intellectual firepower to go to university. As a result the trades which typically offer apprenticeships are seen as less prestigious. None of that makes sense, however. Not all careers need to be built on academic foundations, and apprenticeships may be a high value alternative, as long as the rest of us see them that way. Serious efforts are now being made in these islands to highlight the value of apprenticeships – Scotland’s ‘Modern Apprentice’ system is a good example – but in the end the success of such programmes depends on the apparent social cachet associated with the qualification.
In Germany there is a national code for apprenticeships, which not only reinforces their social value but also sets out the rights and obligations of apprentices. Those who graduate from these programmes enjoy a very similar recognition to that achieved by university graduates. This is important in a modern society that seeks to have a balanced view of the contributions that different people make to economic and social progress, but that also seeks to ensure that all members of society find an appropriate path to professional recognition. It is therefore important that the recommendations of Sir Ian Wood’s Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce should be taken very seriously, and that similar attention should be focused on building up apprenticeships in other countries also.