Learning the trade

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.

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12 Comments on “Learning the trade”

  1. Donncha Kavanagh Says:

    Very well said Ferdinand. I remember when I first worked on a building site, a carpenter apprentice reminded me that it takes longer to become a third fix carpenter (a joiner) than it does to become a medical doctor (and of course the latter still follows a quasi-apprenticeship training).

    Donncha Kavanagh

  2. Al Says:

    Great post FVP!
    I have wondered if the point would ever come where a high tech industry unhappy with the ability of educational providers to deliver enabled people to them would seek to offer their own apprenticeships to deliver the skill level they require.

    Aiming for a higher % of people attending higher education as some metric of success may prove to have been speculation rather than investment and apprenticeships were possibly the most organic introduction to the workforce all along.

  3. V.H Says:

    On this I fundamentally disagree. The thinking denies history.
    The crafts have been systematically removed since before the days of the Luddites. Then it was the weavers work done by mechanical looms. Now the plumbers’ craft by push and click fittings. I’ll bet you that 90% of your job at Dresdener is now done by caressing an enter key activating a spreadsheet if it hasn’t be totally automated.
    This is the intellectual grandchild of National Service.

    • Al Says:

      I have to disagree, there is a need to keep up with innovation that “crafts” as you define them need to keep up with. Your plumber is now dealing with renewable energy, multi zone heating, underfloor heating, etc.
      It is the same with most other technical crafts, and where they may be failed in is where curriculum and educational models drifted from market place relevancy.
      It may be easy to look on from a sector protected from innovation, but consider who assembled the car you drive and what they have to do to keep at the cutting edge of effective work practises.

      • V.H Says:

        I might grant you that, except of course you end up needing a degree in engineering to calculate flow rates. It’s the same for an electrician. Most of the bones of their trade is available to the DIYer with a sharp knife and a good set of screwdrivers and a drill.
        The reason the craft trades survived until now is that they couldn’t be standardised, they were tailors as-it-were. Now, there is no need for a knowledge of sweating lead or bending pipes. And all this talk about apprenticeships might make sense in China but any place in Europe it’s simply a conservative reaction to a huge problem of unemployment.
        The rest of it is employers expecting there be no training costs disturbing their balance sheet at all. That their hires are fully formed and ready to hit the ground running.

        • Al Says:

          Vincent, I have to disagree.
          A plumber would cover all that within the curriculum and have to pass an exam where the minimum pass level is 70%, whereas an engineer could have failed a maths module with a pass level of 40% and passed by compensation.
          I agree with your point about the refocus on the apprentice model in Anglo countries is a little reactive but it could point out that mistakes and misdirection occurred in the past.
          I believe the German model provides an excellent model of practise but most analysis has been two dimensional and doesn’t look further into the social fabric that creates their system.

          • V.H Says:

            No worries. ‘Twould be a sad world indeed if there wasn’t a bit of disagreement to flavour things.
            And yes I may well be viewing thing a bit obliquely.
            You see I hear the Irish managerial class (echoed to some extent in the UK) make the point Ireland is a small open economy and so subject to the whims and whimsy of bigger players when the reality is we are small and therefore easy to turn if the will is there. But sclerotic and aged administrators still picture us as an offshoot of Whitehall when that place had an empire to run.
            And yes again, the German model works. But it works within a system that has never existed on these islands.
            The point about the plumber or any craftsman is that we are going to see fewer of them. They will become like weavers on Harris

  4. no-name Says:

    The proposition that society should have greater regard than it appears to for a job well done is easy to defend, and evidence that such regard is lacking is in the disdain some express for apprenticeships and vocational education.

    Too much on these islands is dysfunctional because proper training is not available to people for the jobs they find themselves in. Generations of this have had the effect that people do not expect professional service in restaurants, shops (or, in Ireland, taxis). If people could be given a taste of competent service then they might have a greater appreciation for the level of investment in training that it takes to be able to deliver such. Further, if people had the expectation that banker tellers and other shop-keepers went through their own proper apprenticeships, then there would be less pressure on universities to deliver courses that fill this niche — less pressure for arts graduates to subsequently qualify as accountants.

    Are nurses more respected now that they no longer do apprenticeships in the traditional sense, but university qualifications, instead? Are they more qualified as nurses?

    Universities face unreasonable demands to be available to educate all of society, when there is a strong chance that most of their subscribers would actually prefer the benefits of proper apprenticeships over courses that they subsequently argue not to provide sufficient preparation for life in any particular sector of the commercial world.

    Your diagnosis that an obstacle inheres in public perception of the value of apprenticeships relative to university qualifications seems correct. Yet, people also sneer at university qualifications for their lack of the key components of apprenticeships, and seem to wish that university courses incorporate them, through integral internships, for example. It seems to more directly address society’s needs to stop short of making university qualifications incorporate apprenticeships and instead celebrate apprenticeships, in their own right, as useful.

    However, it might require fostering appreciation for a principle that you have expressed impatience with. Respect for the essential properties of apprenticeships (or university qualifications) entails respect for giving effort to learning. Similarly, having respect for a job well done, means having respect for doing something well even when the work or its effects are not noticed. Fundamentally, this is the same principle that motivates “research for its own sake”.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      Could not agree more with most of your arguments no-name, except the conclusive one ‘Fundamentally, this is the same principle that motivates “research for its own sake”, in fact, to quote your words again ‘even when the work or its effects are not noticed’ does not automatically support the ‘for its own sake’ concept, the effects might not be noticed in the immediate term but they *do exist* even as a deferred experience, besides nothing we do in life is for its own sake, all *must* have a purpose, a meaning, even one not immediately apparent..

      • no-name Says:

        “nothing we do in life is for its own sake, all *must* have a purpose, a meaning, even one not immediately apparent..”

        Yes, trivially, every intentional act has the purpose of achieving the act.

        Non-trivially, seeking knowledge for the sake of seeking knowledge involves the same risk of non-reward in doing a good job at anything without the work being available for anyone else’s inspection, the same risk of failing to achieve anything but a subjective measure of success, the same risk of failing to achieve even a subjective measure of success.

        The “for its own sake” part is undistinguishable from the extremely positive end of jobs “well done”. If one truly believes it impossible to sanction the pursuit of knowledge, research, for its own sake (because it must, rather, be pursuit of knowledge that has promise of being noticed through its effects), then it follows that in general that person sanctions putting effort into work only when it has promise of being noticed. The superlative of the embodiment of quality is taken out of the equation on such a belief.

        “For its own sake” pursuits are conducted with the ideal of the pursuit being “well done” rather than the outcome “useful”.

        Thus, fundamentally, the principle that makes one strive towards excellence in any job, any activity, is the same principle that motivates research “for its own sake”.

  5. aiecquest Says:

    Excellent, working with shorter or part time periods of study. As an education and training consultant I see too many rushing off to university to study without life or work experience, and often then studying further to post grad level.

    In this day and age I always suggest getting one’s hands dirty in the school of life e.g. hospitality, before investing (yes many pay fees now) in university that may or may not fit…..

    However, not just universities and stakeholders but politicians, public servants, families etc. see university as a pathway to middle class prosperity…. when in fact it may not be…..

    If one can, seriously consider a trade or technical vocation because you can be employed, and have job satisfaction while earning more money than a university graduate (that’s if the graduate is working).


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