Does Germany Have It Right? State Funded Vocational Schools Offer Alternative Career Path
April 17, 2014

In America, most of us see college as the sole route to success in life and financial stability. We’ve discussed the value of skilled trades here before, especially for those for whom college isn’t a fit. But for the most part, we don’t actively encourage young adults to opt for trade school over college. And the emphasis on college has also resulted in mounting student loan debt, nearing $30,000 per graduate with no guarantee of getting a job. In Germany, however, the government recognizes that not everyone will benefit from or needs college and that many, in fact, have aptitudes in arenas not addressed by a university education.

Graffiti in Berlin, Germany

Germany approaches vocational education differently than the US

Germany’s vocational education program doesn’t just push people into generic trades rather than college. Instead, it’s a well designed system that considers aptitude and sees non-university vocations not as a fall-back plan for those that can’t cut it in college, but rather as a respected route to a satisfying career. Known as “duales ausbildungssystem,” which means dual vocational training, the program puts students to work in apprenticeship-type programs while in vocational school, so they have extensive hands-on experience in addition to the educational component.

The dual program offers training in 365 apprenticeships fields. Testing takes place at intervals to ensure the students are progressing adequately. In addition to offering on-the-job training that progresses in complexity as training does, students are considered employees of the company they apprentice at and are paid wages from day one. Typically, schooling takes place one to two days per week and hands-on work takes place the remaining days. Many companies go on to permanently hire those they apprentice because they know the student workers have been trained in a manner the firm prefers.

The combined training and education programs run from two to three and a half years. The training program is at no cost to students and participants receive an average $1,000 stipend per month from the company where they apprentice. You can read the most recent report on the German program by clicking here, but the takeaway is that employers hire their trainees nearly 70% of the time and this is encouraging.

In 2012, just 18% of those leaving the German equivalent of high school moved on to university studies, but this is the highest percentage in recent years. In the US, this statistic is a whopping 66%. This may sound great, but just little more than half of these will graduate according to research by Think Progress. And if those that don’t make it out have to borrow to attend, they will be burdened with debt without the advantages of a degree. This can be disastrous.

Post high-school outcomes in Germany

Statistics from Germany on post-high school activity
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Comparatively, in Deutschland, 9% of grads go to vocational school full-time, another 20% pursue general education or other vocational training and 32% are enrolled in the dual education program described above. And, even better, few German students that choose college emerge with debt because of their tuition-free system. Those that borrow do so mostly to support living expenses. This is much preferable to our education for debt system that is weighing so many down.

With America facing a skilled labor shortage now that will become a crisis within the next decade, it’s imperative that we put more emphasis on skilled trades, make vocational school affordable and encourage companies to adopt apprenticeship practices. And we need not try and force every high schooler onto the college track. Skilled trades are admirable and should be seen as a respected alternate route to a career, not as a poor substitute for over-priced college.

If you are borrowing to pay for your college or vocational training, sign up for’s free student loan tool to keep track of your debt from day one and learn how to optimize it so you can pay it off sooner. Be sure to read our blog often for more discussions like this one, as well as legislative news on student loan matters and other interesting topics.