Skilled trades have “golden foundations” in Germany

The benefits and setbacks of a dual education system

“Handwerk hat goldenen Boden”: When choosing your career as a young person in Germany, this sentence will be thrown at you again and again. The sentiment that “skilled trade has golden foundations” is a very German reaction to societies turning more virtual, jobs becoming more technical and service industries overpowering traditional manufacturing.

A strong focus on reliability and traditional crafts is typical for Germany, and it comes with a longing for maintaining the status quo. This trait has been criticised a lot, since it meant slow bureaucracy and lots of red tape for businesses, making it hard for entrepreneurs to enter the market and new technologies to find a footing.

On the other hand, during the many crises of the last years, the country has shown much better resilience and great stability even in uncertain times. Germany is not always a leader when it comes to internet technology, new services and startup culture – but it is a reliable partner around the world when it comes to things that work.

One of the reasons is the way Germany educates its workers. Unskilled labour and hardly educated tradesmen are not common. The education system has many flaws: Schools are underfunded, like in many countries around the world, early years education is not prioritised properly, and despite attempts to change this, there is still an early split between education for manual labour, vocational education or preparation for an academic career. At 10 years already, leaving primary school, children are being sorted into one of three different secondary school types. It is not an easy task to switch between these afterwards – so quite a few children lose their option to visit a university already at this early age.

Yet further education is indeed very good. Learning a trade means entering an apprenticeship for usually 3 years, and these years are spent not only with practical learning on the job, but also in school. Apprentices work full time with their employer, but visit a specialised school for their trade for usually two days a week. They leave their apprenticeship as a fully qualified “Geselle”, a word that doesn’t seem to have a straightforward translation into English, but simply means being a licensed tradesman.

This gives status and a guarantee for actual skills. If you talk to immigrants in England, one of the things that inevitably pops up in conversation is the absolute hit and miss when it comes to quality of work. Plumbers, joiners, electricians in England don’t enjoy the same level of qualification as in Germany. Education remains poorly standardised and hardly quality-checked. Many people around us prefer Polish plumbers, for example, thinking that they are by far more reliable and better trained.

This is not entirely fair. There are brilliant tradesmen in England, and the lack of standards also means that talented workers can do their job without having to go through a 3-year formal education at first. Changing careers and developing personal skills is much easier in England than it is in Germany, where it is hard to work outside the beaten tracks. Once a barber, always a barber – unless you decide to go through a complete education again. This lack of flexibility and the focus on formal certificates can be a pain for workers, but also for those buying services. It’s nice to know that a builder is fully educated – but it might be much nicer if he is passionate about his job and willing to constantly learn more. Thinking out of the box is not something that Germany’s vocational education really encourages.

That comes with other problems for tradesmen: Wanting to become self-employed or starting an own business is restricted to those who have completed the next step of formal education. Only a “Meister”, a master of their trade, is allowed to run a business and educate own apprentices. The Meister qualification is hard and not exactly cheap – but on the other hand it opens up universities also for those who have not received an “Abitur” (the German A Level equivalent). On this higher level, it becomes possible to educate yourself even further – but that doesn’t mean you are allowed to switch to another trade without climbing the complete education ladder again.

This makes it very difficult for immigrants to open their own business – unless it is in a field of work that is not (yet) this strictly regulated.

For the 41 most important occupations, the level of organisation is very strict. Every business has to be registered with the official “Handwerkskammer” – the chamber of commerce. This includes businesses like butchers, joiners, builders, painters and decorators or even chimney sweeps. 57 other trades, including tailors, tilers, bookbinders, bin men or goldsmiths, are less regulated, but still organised in chambers and under heavy official oversight.

Not totally surprising: Traditional trade suffers from staff shortages. Year after year, up to 20,000 positions remain vacant. More than 40 per cent of all traditional trade business are desperately searching for qualified workers and apprentices.

This, on the other hand, leads us back to the headline of the article: Working fully qualified in Germany means a decent income. Trade in Germany indeed has a “golden foundation”. Electricians, for example, earn an average of 36,000 € per year – after gaining their master, this rises to 45,000 €. In the UK, this salary is around 32K at the top end of the scale.

Joiners, roofers and builders all cross the 40k threshold as soon as they gained their master diploma. These jobs end at about 26k in the UK.

That, of course, only covers employed income, not the chances of self employment or starting an own company. This website offers a calculator that helps to work out the expected income in different German trades.

A tough journey to mastership

“Lehrjahre sind keine Herrenjahre” – apprentice years are not master’s years – is a common hint for beginners in any trade. Although the ruthless exploitation of apprentices has faded somewhat (other than the common pranks, sending newbies to buy “wifi cable” etc.), education is not always easy.

In Germany and France, you might run into journeymen – an old tradition that hails from medieval times and is still honoured in many trades. In old fashioned clothes, tradesmen who finished their apprenticeships might travel on foot to find temporary jobs and grow their work (and life) experience on the road. Craftsmen who learned roofing, metalworking, woodcarving, carpentry and joinery sign up for at least three years and one day, and they are welcome in businesses across the nation, although the tradition is slowly wearing off.

Look out for journeymen or -women when travelling in Germany! They are always grateful for a beer or a meal, and they usually have stories to tell. Legend has it, for example, that any roofer will fall from a roof at least three times during their career – and the “Wanderjahre” make sure that this is out of the way and won’t happen afterwards anymore. This, of course, is superstition. But what would any tradition be without tales and myths?

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