Berlin takes the lead as Europe battles to save lost generation before it’s too late

The ‘dual training’ system in Germany is believed to have delivered on youth employment

Protesters march holding a banner reading “For a more social and democratic Europe. More jobs and social protection” during a demonstration in Madrid, Spain, this month. AP Photo/Andres Kudacki

Protesters march holding a banner reading “For a more social and democratic Europe. More jobs and social protection” during a demonstration in Madrid, Spain, this month. AP Photo/Andres Kudacki


As the dust settles on this week’s EU summit in Brussels, the focus is already turning to Berlin. In a bid to seize the political initiative, Chancellor Angela Merkel has invited EU leaders, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny, for a meeting aimed at regaining control of the losing battle against youth unemployment.

As the existential threat of a euro zone break-up recedes, political attention is now turning to its most insidious side-effect: a euro zone jobless rate of 12.2 per cent and, even more shocking, a one-in-four jobless rate for under-25s.

In Greece the rate is 62.5 per cent; in Spain 56.4 per cent.

One reason for the focus shift from Brussels to Berlin is a conundrum facing the EU: how to respond collectively to a problem, responsibility for which rests ultimately with individual states.

Polls consistently show that unemployment is the single biggest concern for EU citizens.

But flatlining economies across the continent make any boost to the labour market a faint hope.

According to research from ING bank, annual economic growth of 1.5 per cent is needed to create new jobs.

No summit passes without EU leaders, in a nod to voter concerns, mention youth unemployment. In Brussels this week, however, EU officials and national leaders conceded in private that neither EU institutions nor an increase in EU funding can solve the problem. The second reason for the shift in focus to Berlin is Germany’s youth unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent – the lowest in Europe. It is widely accepted that one of the main reasons is its “dual training” system.

Vocational training
Each year one-third of German school-leavers go to university while two-thirds pursue a vocational training path, dividing their week between the workplace and the classroom.

The German system is a product of cultural necessity: while many of its European neighbours have mass-university education to match their service-based economies, Germany still makes things the world needs – and needs employees to make them.

Glen Dimplex is one Irish company already convinced of the dual system’s benefits. Its Germany subsidiary in Bavaria, a market leader in heat pumps and coolers for magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) scanners, employs 900 and trains 44 each year from the factory floor to the back office.

“What I like about the system is that you have the chance to test out immediately in the work place what you’ve learned,” said Simone Kunert (19), doing a traineeship to be a kauffrau or industrial clerk.

Glen Dimplex apprentices work for up to 3.5 years and earn up to €1,000 a month. At the end they have a recognised qualification and a good chance of being taken on by the company.

By supporting the dual system – in particular devising the trainee course content – German companies ensure a steady supply of qualified staff to keep the German motor running. Given the stark statistical reality, recognition is growing among European leaders that Germany is on to something. A year ago Berlin signed a bilateral agreement with Madrid to adapt elements of its dual training system.

Other EU countries are likely to follow. Officials at Dublin’s German-Irish Chamber of Industry and Commerce (AHK) say their efforts to push dual training have so far hit a brick wall.

AHK chairman Ralf Lissek says Irish companies have difficulty understanding the dual system’s core principle: for companies to get the workers they have to design the training course themselves, not buy it off the peg.

“In Government there is talk that the dual system is a priority but, a year after we made our submissions, nothing has yet materialised,” he said. “There’s no reason to wait, the youth jobless rate is 30 per cent. Just do it.”

Reach decisions
Others involved in the process say the reorganisation of Fás into Solas has made it difficult to reach decisions and assign budgets to promote job creation.

Sean O’Driscoll, the chief executive of Glen Dimplex, is impressed by what he sees at his Bavarian subsidiary but sees “absolutely no progress” on efforts to advance dual training in Ireland.

As one of six executives on the National Competitiveness Council, he is optimistic about Government efforts to introduce reform and clear roadblocks to employment under the Action Plan for Jobs 2013.

“When that is implemented I would love to see the dual training system as one of the reforms on the action plan for 2014.”

Despite her determination to seize the initiative in Berlin, the German leader sounded a note of caution yesterday in Brussels. “We cannot awaken unrealistic expectations on youth employment otherwise disappointment will result. Things cannot be agreed centrally, they have to be solved in member states.”