Germany Meets the Limits of Apprenticeship

“With a population about 25% the size of the United States, Germany has nearly 3x as many apprentices”


Question: How many Germans does it take to change a lightbulb at one of our apprenticeship programs? Answer: None. We leave it to the visiting American politicians.

I’ve begun telling this joke to my friends in German’s tech community. American senators, governors, even mayors (most recently the Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama) are a near-constant presence at Germany’s famous apprenticeship programs, visiting, touring – and yes, enjoying our wonderful food and wine – in search of a pathway to good jobs that don’t require a traditional university education.

We Germans are rightly proud of our apprenticeship system, which provides training on not only the technical skills workers need to succeed, but also on “how work works” i.e., training workers on the basics, like how meetings work, and showing up on time. The system dates back to craft guilds from the Middle Ages and involves federally-mandated collaboration between these associations, unions, educational institutions, and government.

“Germany has fallen behind digitally and is struggling to catch up”

As a nation, we consider training youth for employment a social responsibility. As a result, nearly half of all German youth participate in vocational education, which builds upon school tracking as early as 4th grade. With a population about 25% the size of the United States, Germany has nearly 3x as many apprentices.

But where we do need help is in the digital economy. Of the top 25 technology companies in the world, only one is German (SAP).

Germany has fallen behind digitally and is struggling to catch up. There are currently 55,000 open software development jobs, and hundreds of thousands more unfilled tech jobs that require digital skills (e.g., requiring mastery of a software platform to manage a business function). But while Americans continue to look to our apprenticeship system for direction, there are three reasons apprenticeships as we know them aren’t helping Germany close its digital skills gap.

The first is that apprenticeships are really only designed for young people looking to begin their careers. Apprentices participate in “dual training,” splitting their time between work at an employer, and relevant vocational training classes at a participating educational institution. While formal schooling might work for 17, 18, and 19-year-olds, as in America, the bigger need (and opportunity) is retraining millions of Non-IT graduates and experienced workers who require digital skills, but who aren’t interested in leaving their job and returning to a classroom. These “career changers” represent by far the bigger potential for closing the digital skills gap in the near future.

The second limitation is time. According to federal law, apprenticeships last for at least two years (and perhaps as much as four years, depending on the job). Two years is far too long for most of the missing digital skills. 3-6 months of intensive training on a limited set of digital skills are more than sufficient to make workers productive from day one in most of the digital jobs that need to be filled.

The third reason is the pace of change. Digital technologies evolve within a single year, let alone multiple years. Training on digital technologies is best done through short, intensive bursts rather than a prolonged and overly formal training program such as Germany’s current apprenticeships. Moreover, it’s hard enough coordinating with vocational schools to deliver the classroom-based training during a two-year apprenticeship. Asking them to accelerate in order to cycle at digital speed is nearly unthinkable. And accreditors, who may need to approve new educational programs, only gum up the works even more.

American politicians visiting Germany and wondering how best to close America’s digital skills gap would be well-served to add a few new stops to their itineraries – ones that replicate an American-born model.

“Training on digital technologies is best done through short, intensive bursts rather than a prolonged and overly formal training program”

Germany has begun importing U.S.-style coding bootcamps. Miami-based Ironhack has launched 9-week programs in Web Development and UI/UX in Berlin. Berlin-based SPICED Academy claims a 92% placement rate. Both programs are delivered in English, and graduates fill open positions in Berlin’s vibrant startup scene or return to their home countries.

Last year, I founded neue fische in Hamburg. While Berlin is larger and gets most of the digital attention, Hamburg is Germany’s second biggest city and home to many of its largest companies – all of which have trouble filling their digital jobs. So neue fische provides its 12-week Web Development and Data Science programs in German – the language of Hamburg business.

“Germany has begun importing U.S.-style coding bootcamps”

By the end of this year, we will have trained and placed nearly 200 software developers and data scientists in technology companies, respected digital agencies and at multinationals. And because students might be eligible for state support to finance the cost of the program, or opt for income share agreements (allowing them to pay for the training with a small percentage of their income after getting a good job), no student is forced to pay out-of-pocket for the cost of training.

While many apprenticeships screen candidates based on grades, coding bootcamps take a more progressive approach. We’re all looking for potential and character – trying to identify those who are likely to thrive in the tech sector in the long run. As a result, bootcamps are closing Germany’s digital skills gap with an unprecedented level of diversity in terms of field of study, gender, and ethnicity.

While neue fische has evolved in the land of apprenticeships, we’re not a formal apprenticeship program. But with this American-born model, we’ve begun to address the real talent needs of German businesses. We also have great food and wine, so American politicians are welcome to visit us as well!

About the author: Dalia Das is the founder of neue fische, Germany’s first German-language coding bootcamp.