The Right Skills, Fair Pay and Access to Quality Jobs: Reflections on the German Dual System and How Cities Can Tackle the Youth Jobs Crisis

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on November 26th, 2013

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“That says it all. Here they use a BMW cabriolet for apprentice mechanics to train on – back in Italy it’d be an old Fiat cinquecento!”

A Transnational Delegation at Kaiserslautern Vocational Training Centre

We were walking through the vocational training centre in Kaiserslautern, and my Italian colleague was not the only one feeling green with envy as we admired the German dual system in action. Touring the modern well-equipped building, with its range of specialist equipment for sectors as diverse as construction, motor vehicle engineering and plumbing, we couldn’t fail to be impressed.

Most of you will know that the Dual system is a three-way deal between employers, trades unions and training centres. It’s also well known that the model includes all partners contributing to the costs, with the employer contribution recently rising above the 33% level to compensate for the pinch in Länder budgets – yes, even here.

The system is underpinned by a legal agreement which requires small businesses to release apprentices for training and for individuals to commit to being trained. The quality and currency of the skills they acquire are guaranteed through a model where all stakeholders actively collaborate and refine the curriculum on a regular basis.

It’s always interesting being part of a transnational delegation as they process what they are seeing. The first step is absorption – just soaking up the information. The second is challenging and clarifying: How do you manage to get small employers to make this kind of financial commitment? (Answer: They could not afford to invest themselves); How do you prevent companies poaching talent from one another? (Answer: During the training contract period, a close record is kept of trainee and employer activity – after that it’s open season). The third, and most relevant part for URBACT is where participants try to work out how they can apply these lessons – or parts of them – back home.

Lessons for Jobtown Partners and Acknowledged Limits of the Dual System

I was in Kaiserslautern with partners of the Jobtown project. They all found things there that were relevant to their work supporting young people into jobs. But none imagined that they could transport wholesale a system that is deep rooted in the German culture of guilds aligned to economic sectors which continue to generate employment opportunities.

Yet partners highlighted the elements of the German model that could be replicated – a shared agenda between employers and skills providers; a sustained campaign to make ‘craft skills’ attractive to young people; and work upstream with schools and with parents to ensure that young people make informed choices, All of these are in the mix.

To their credit, our German hosts were open about the ways in which their system could be improved. It is still difficult to attract young women and those from minority backgrounds to enter traditional craft sectors. There are questions as to the extent the system encourages the kind of creative problem solving and innovative thinking that employers increasingly want. And the system has very limited space to encourage and promote entrepreneurial attitudes – despite the fact that these trades are ideal platforms to become self-employed. The OECD and other commentators have underlined these concerns.

But the experience triggered an active discussion amongst participants about what cities can do to address the chronic levels of unemployment across much of Europe. This was also the focus of our recent URBACT Workstream report, More Jobs Better Cities , which explored the scope for tackling this issue at the city level. It concludes that there are many things that cities can do in the face of the crisis.

Several of the key steps are already being taken in Kaiserslautern – for example, labour market forecasting to anticipate the future skill requirements and active collaboration between employers and other stakeholders. Within the wider Jobtown partnership other cities are adopting approaches advocated in the Workstream report – such as providing high quality work experience for unemployed youth and optimising the public sector’s procurement process to create opportunities for young people.

Need and Possibility for Urban Solutions

A clear message from our German visit was that these young people are being prepared for quality jobs with decent rates of pay and good working conditions.

Again, we might wonder what cities can do to encourage this? But there are examples out there. One is in Glasgow (My Generation at Work partner) where the municipality has declared itself a ‘Living Wage employer‘. This commits the authority to paying all of its staff a ‘living wage’ (rather than the UK minimum wage) defined by the municipality as UK £7.50 per hour.

Significantly, the authority is looking for ways to apply this more widely in the city, particularly in the traditionally low-wage sectors (tourism, hospitality and retail) where many young people get their first jobs. They are exploring options to require companies benefitting from municipality support to pay the living wage to their staff. This is tough – especially in the present economic climate – but they have had some initial successes.

These are small steps, when we examine the scale of the youth unemployment problem. We need more jobs, quality jobs for the future, and cities have a duty to prioritise this. Our young people expect more than a precarious future, and the keys to success are higher levels of skills and education, increased rates of entrepreneurship and job creation. As the Workstream report says, there is no solution to the jobs crisis without an urban solution – so cities have a lead role in making this happen.



By Eddy Adams

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