Note: The author of this article is a British bilingual entrepreneur who has a German partner and experience as both an expat and student in Germany, and also draws on insights from other native German connections.
In A Nutshell
- It is important to consider cross-cultural and economic differences when evaluating the education systems of other countries.
- Economic research has long indicated that British workers possess a stronger entrepreneurial spirit and drive than other Europeans and, therefore, need apprenticeships that hone and develop business development, entrepreneurial (and intrapreneurial) competences in order to prepare apprentices to enable them both to work for others and for themselves.
- There is a pressing need to celebrate and fuel the ambition of entrepreneurs and business leaders as the UK is currently in the grip of economic uncertainty; The need for attracting more entrepreneurs from other countries to the UK has been written about extensively since Brexit, but home grown talent is arguably better.
- A more flexible & customisable approach to the administration of UK apprenticeships enables employers to leverage them in a way that helps the wider business to grow and innovate. This is not as easily attainable in the German model.
- The UK must continue to erode the stigma around apprenticeships, market them in a more targeted way as a further education pathway for all eligible groups, and work with higher education providers to promote degreeships as a valuable alternative to a traditional degree.
📚 Useful List of 12 important websites on the German dual apprenticeship system.
The Full Version
In his announcement speech earlier this year, Gavin Williamson said of Further Education:
“Its ability to offer flexible, practical training that leads directly to jobs is exactly what this country needs.” and “…the development of technical and vocational skills, the greater embedding of digital skills – will be vital to charting our course to recovery.”
He also promised to reveal plans for a world class, “German style” apprenticeship system towards the end of 2020. It is rather interesting to me how much Britain seems to admire Germany while understanding very little about its culture, people or language beyond the stereotypes. In fact, in the UK, only around 8,000 students (1 in 65) pursue a modern language degree each year. Even fewer Brits choose to study German, as I did, despite it being one of the top 10 most important business languages.
While I agree that several aspects of Germany’s system could be adopted by the UK for the better, such as building a more unified approach to further education, and helping everyone appreciate the benefits of apprenticeships as they do in Germany, copying and pasting the German model in the UK may not be the most effective strategy.
Due Praise For A Dual Approach
The German apprenticeship system has been praised by the UK government and many in the international community. For the most part, this praise is well earned. The percentage of young Germans not in employment, education or training (NEETs) is far below that of other Eurozone countries. Bravo, Germany.
Now, as other countries struggle to emulate it, Germany is even beginning to export its model of vocational training. According to a paper published by the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre, the German dual system allows young people to ‘move smoothly into skilled jobs’ and avoids the ‘polarised qualification structure’ – such as in the UK – where until recently there were fewer qualifications to straddle the gulf between those with and without a university degree.
A plentiful supply of skilled employees is ideal for Germany, a country whose economy is projected to recover well from any pandemic induced recession, according to the latest Bundesbank projections.
Skilled Worker Bees
The main goal of the German education system is to create more “worker bees” so-to-speak to power its famously efficient skills-based economy. Roughly 40% of apprentices in Germany get offered jobs with the same employer before the end of their apprenticeship programme; Of those having already received a job offer from their employer, over 60% are offered an open-ended contract.
Statistically, German apprenticeships appear to be a more reliable route into long-term stable employment than apprenticeships in the UK. But, government research in 2018 published a very encouraging statistic for UK apprenticeships too – that 65% of apprentices (of a total of 844) in the study remained in full-time employment after finishing their apprenticeship.
Wealth, lifestyle and career aspirations may appear similar from a distance but are really quite different to those of Brits who, on the whole, place higher value on freedom and flexibility in most areas of life. For instance, consider the difference in attitude towards home ownership where most Germans are happy to rent a home long term – compared with most Brits (70.7%) who view renting as a waste of money and home ownership a life goal!
Despite the success of Germany’s apprenticeship system, could it be that the stable jobs it creates effectively keep Germany’s would-be entrepreneurs from breaking free of the corporate grind to start their own ventures? Certainly, entrepreneurial competences (knowledge, skills and behaviours or “KSBs”) are not embedded in the German apprenticeship curriculum.
Moreover, how could such a system work as well for the UK when data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that the number of young people choosing self-employment is slowly increasing, with 22% of 16- to 21-year-olds stating that they wish to become self-employed in the future..?
Surprisingly, Germany (15th) ranks well below the United Kingdom (4th) and even below Iceland (7th) and Austria (14th) on the Global Entrepreneurship Index.
In a 2018 German economics publication called Wirtschaft’s Woche (wiwo.de), Rolf Sternberg, professor of economic geography at the University of Hannover, said;
“There has been no [nationwide] breakthrough in Germany’s startup climate. It has slightly improved in recent years, but at a very slow pace.”Rolf Sternberg
So, perhaps it may be helpful to consider some of the reasons why career paths that don’t require too many autonomous or risky decisions, might be more appealing than self-employment;
1. Opportunity Cost
There is no doubt that better pay and working conditions give anyone, not only Germans, little incentive to become their own bosses. The sense of security afforded by a stable income and robust public pension system meets one of our basic human needs (as was made famous by Maslow’s Hierarchy), and is surely another key reason why Germany’s entrepreneurial climate is just so-so.
Compare this with British and American employers, who have ‘championed’ the insecure zero hours contract that has fueled the gig economy since the last recession, and it’s easy to see that in economic terms, the opportunity costs of leaving a stable job in Germany appear to be too high.
2. Risk Tolerance
In Germany, students are inundated with the message that being hired at the biggest employer possible is the ultimate achievement. The result? Latent despondency towards self-employment.
It makes sense then that a survey of nearly 5,000 German citizens found that only 37% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 67 believe they have the skills and experience to follow through and launch a start-up.
To draw an even starker contrast in attitudes towards self-employment, another study found that more than 54% of Americans think they have sufficient business acumen, whereas a whopping 64% of Brits believe they have what it takes to succeed with their own business. Indeed, the small business arena makes a hugely significant contribution to the UK economy, forming 98% of private sector businesses. (That’s not to say the same degree of ambition is to be found across all generations but it is a topic for another post.)
“Entrepreneurs and business owners are no longer seen as peripheral to the way the economy functions. They are now part of the mainstream”– Mark Hart, professor of small business and entrepreneurship, Aston Business School, UK
3. Red Tape & Support Networks for Start-Ups
While Germany’s political and institutional frameworks are quite good at providing subsidies for young entrepreneurs, and were also quick to provide support small to medium sized businesses at the onset of the corona crisis, they still fall short in simplifying tax law and streamlining bureaucracy for start-up founders.
Germany would need to remove many structural and cultural hurdles to really unleash the country’s entrepreneurial potential, according to another GEM report.
“We should be conveying to adolescents that entrepreneurial self-employment is a natural alternative to full employment.”Prof. Dr. Rolf Sternberg from the University of Hannover, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2017
Though the new “Mini-GmbH”, which seeks to make the shift from sole trader to limited company/corporation simpler, is definitely a step in the right direction.
Furthermore, there is a lack of start-up training in schools or via extra-curricular activities, meanwhile uptake of entrepreneurship studies in higher education is slowly growing in popularity, yet only 10% of Germany’s apprenticeship graduates continue onto higher levels of education.
4. Perceptions Of Apprenticeships
Because of the effective collaboration between employers, schools, the chamber of commerce, and the local governments in German apprenticeships, Germans do not view them as a second rate option.
Whereas, the greatest problem with UK apprenticeships arguably lies not so much in the apprenticeship model itself, as much as people’s general perceptions of apprenticeships. While plenty of apprenticeship graduates and studies have asserted that certain apprenticeships can provide more well-rounded experience and qualifications than traditional degrees, most British adults would still choose university over an apprenticeship because of the associated stigma.
Bleaker UK Economic Projections
Both the influence of entrepreneurial competences on the success of smaller firms, and the need for attracting more entrepreneurs from other countries to the UK post-Brexit have been researched and written about extensively.
An abundance of employees who are indifferent towards – or even fearful of – self-employment is, therefore, not necessarily what the British economy needs to rebound beyond 2021.
While admiring the German dual apprenticeship system, few outsiders understand that it actually prevents more apprenticeships being made available by its very design.
To become an apprenticeship provider, membership of the Handelskammer is very difficult yet compulsory to obtain, such that only 56% of German firms are authorised to deliver apprenticeships. Moreover, curricula are nationally standardised, leaving no flexibility to customise the delivery according to the specific role and the future needs of a business.
New training curricula must go through the multilayered “Elaboration Process”, a highly regulated procedure involving the Federal Government, the state governments, employers and trade unions, which verifies that the in-company training and vocational school education complement one another. German efficiency is a paradoxical concept; it also means that formal processes and procedures are fixed and non-negotiable in a way to which the British mindset is not accustomed!
Also overlooked is the fact that German apprenticeships are primarily aimed at school leavers. To be exact, the percentage of people pursuing an apprenticeship over the age of 23 in Germany is very low at 9.7%. For those over 40? Just 0.2%!
Whereas in the UK, thanks in part to improvements in longevity medicine, there will be an ever-growing older population, who tend to be working for longer either by choice or through necessity. Not to mention unfavourable state pension reforms. We should, therefore, continue to look for smarter ways to leverage older workers’ invaluable experience by designing and marketing UK apprenticeships to appeal to all age groups – not just to young school leavers – as a valuable pathway to upskilling, reskilling or changing career paths.
On The Right Track
While Germany’s apprenticeship system optimises productivity, it also leads to a large degree of career choice inflexibility, which means that should individuals change their mind or improve their grades over time (as is more common than ever nowadays), apprentice graduates are limited as to where they can go.
Editors at FEWeek.co.uk also picked up on this point, saying:
“Such strict career paths can focus young people on a clear direction, but leaves little room for those who don’t know what they want to do or where their talents can be best applied. Although the country is getting better, and it is now possible for students with high academic achievement at the Realschule to switch to a Gymnasium on graduation. This flexibility is important when considering how a German-style model might work best in the UK.”
Given that 83% of all starts in 2020 were in four subject areas: Business, Administration and Law; Health, Public Services and Care; Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies and Retail & Commercial Enterprise, it appears that UK apprenticeships are already working hard at developing future talent for some of our leading industries. There are even specialist recruiters such as White Hat hunting for “start-up talent” at apprentice level – a recruitment sector which appears non-existent in Germany.
With all this in mind, we would be better off with a lighter touch when it comes to regulation. This both challenges and encourages employers to create new programmes that align with current and future market demand, instead of being restrained by regulations, providing more opportunity to nurture entrepreneurial skills and thinking while on programme.
Fueling the growth of entrepreneurship and innovation will after all be key moving into a post-EU economic landscape that will rely even more heavily on domestic business and job creation.
Since British values are incorporated into apprenticeships as standard, perhaps we should even include “entrepreneurial” and “innovative” on the list, and embed these as skills, attributes, and behaviours more often in our course materials and curricula, as we do for our customers at FE Matters.
Defining Entrepreneurial Competencies & Skills
Let me start this section by clarifying that there is a difference between being an actual entrepreneur and having entrepreneurial tendencies or competences. One can apply the competences either to launch a business or in employment to have a greater impact on your organisation than they otherwise would.
Entrepreneurial competencies combine creativity, a sense of initiative, problem-solving, the ability to marshal resources, and financial and technological knowledge. They enable future entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs (employees who apply entrepreneurial skills within a company) to create and adapt to change more easily and effectively.
Efforts to develop entrepreneurial competencies through apprenticeships requires embedding the foundations of an entrepreneurial mind-set into bespoke curricula and standards, and building on this progressively and more consistently with targeted and specific project-based activities the closer learners get to end-point-assessment.
Although the switch from continuous to end point assessment makes things more streamlined and efficient, in a reality, a single mock project towards the end of a programme is not really enough to get a reliable, synoptic picture of any range of vocational competences. Training providers should find ways to implement project-based learning throughout, as we do for our customers at FE Matters.
Exactly how you can implement these competences effectively in your programme depends on the apprenticeship standard, learning objectives and role. But, you should consider the important characteristics that an individual will need in order to perform entrepreneurial functions for your organisation most effectively.
Some examples of entrepreneurial competences:
|Ideas & Opportunities||Resources||Translation
|Spotting opportunities||Self-awareness & self-efficacy||Initiative taking|
|Creativity||Motivation and perseverance||Planning & management|
|Envisioning||Mobilising resources||Coping with uncertainty, ambiguity & risk|
|Valuing ideas||Financial & economic literacy||Working well with others of differing skills & abilities|
|Ethical & sustainable thinking||Mobilising others||Learning through experience|
Leave a comment below if you found this useful or share your experience of embedding entrepreneurial competencies.👇
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