The role of trade unions in the German system of Vocational Education & Training

The German trade unions and the dual system of Vocational Education & Training (VET) have a strong correlation, since vocational education and training also leads to better salaries and decent working conditions. The unions are therefore strong stakeholders and supporters of the dual mode of VET as designed in Germany.

This could be explained by pointing out that the trade unions play an important part within the dual system of VET:


  • The trade unions participate in the development of the National Occupation Standards (NOS). They send their experts to the committees, where these standards are discussed and finalized, jointly with experts from the industry and the government. After having finalized the NOS, they get enforced by the central government of Germany. All companies who conduct VET have to comply with it. So far we have about 350 NOS, one third of them newly developed or redesigned during the last 10 years, according to changing industry requirements.

    As the trade unions look after the interests of the youngsters who will start their professional life with VET, the unions stress the need of a broad-based VET which will give a solid foundation for the whole working life. The industry, however, is sometimes more interested in short-term VET with a more narrow understanding of their needs. Eventually, the experts nearly always find a well-balanced solution. As a result, our NOS require two to three and a half years of VET as an apprenticeship.

    The major part of the VET is given within the companies, on the shop-floor, supported by qualified in-company trainers. One or two days a week the apprentices go to a vocational school run by the state government. There they are taught the theoretical part of the profession, which is linked to the practical part of VET given on the shop-floor.


  • The trade unions negotiate the apprenticeship-salaries, as they are part of the collective contracts settled by the unions and the employer-associations for that specific industry and not for a single company only. The apprenticeship-salaries are roughly one-third of the salary of a qualified worker and will increase after finishing of the first and the second year of apprenticeship. Those apprenticeship salaries are paid by the companies. The apprentices can make a basic living and through that, children/youth of the weaker sections of society can also afford a high-standard vocational training. The apprenticeship-salaries make the VET-system in Germany inclusive.

    For employers the apprenticeship is a kind of investment in people, and after the training they integrate the best of their apprentices into their workforce. At the same time, companies get a return on their investment during the apprenticeship also: The apprentices who are trained on the shop-floor under real-life conditions, contribute to the business and create value while being trained. The apprenticeship salaries, cost of trained in-company trainers, registration- and examination fees – are all borne by the employers.


  • Definitely, the question arises whether proper training is provided or it is more a kind of exploitation. This was a major concern in the past and a point of controversy and some conflict too. Finally, a solution was found through our Vocational Education&Training Act. This act defines the role of all stakeholders of the VET-system and safeguards the quality of VET. For example, the Chambers of Skilled Crafts and the Chambers of Commerce have to monitor the VET given on the shop-floor, to check the ability of companies for taking part in VET, for qualifying in-company trainers, etc.

    Within the companies the work-councils – elected by all workers, blue and white collar workers, apprentices, part-time and fulltime workers – have to look after the VET on the shop-floor also. Most of these work-councils are unionized. Therefore, the unions also have a look at the day-to-day VET on the shop-floor, at least in the companies where works-councils are established.


  • Finally, the examination bodies also include representatives of the workers, nominated by the unions. Examinations are held twice: a mid-term examination and the final examination. The chambers are in charge of the examination, and their exam-committee comprises experts from the industry, the vocational schools and the workers. If one is not able to pass the examination, he or she can repeat it after six months. In the meantime, the company has to extend the apprenticeship-contract accordingly.


After passing the final examination the apprenticeship ends. Both employer and former apprentice are free to decide on the future plans. Roughly 60 per cent of the apprentices join the workforce of their training company, 40 per cent find a job elsewhere. As they receive a VET according to high standards and recognized throughout Germany, they are in high demand. In addition, the collective contracts, negotiated and settled by the unions and the employer-associations, stipulate the salaries for qualified workers after apprenticeship. Therefore, VET also means getting the opportunity to earn higher salaries after training. The workers get better pay, the companies get quality and productivity.


Being in India for the last three years I have learnt that the dual mode of VET in Germany is different from the practical experience under the Apprenticeship Act in India. Sometimes there is fear that a dual mode of VET could become a license for exploitation, as there are some reports on misuse and exploitation through so-called trainee-contracts with low salaries. The German experience is different and I would like to underline two points:


  • Only a dual system of VET, with in-company training as a significant part of the training, is able to deliver world-class skilled workers. At least the core of a reformed VET in India should be managed in this way – and the industry should accept its responsibility and role within it.


  • For running a dual VET according to the needs of the industry and in the best interest of youngsters, the trade unions should take a constructive stand on it. The unions should foster a well-designed dual VET, as this would also be in the interest of the workers who could be their members. For that, unions should produce real VET experts within its ranks who are able to safeguard the process in a constructive manner.


Hence VET is one of the important tools that allows industries to function well and. On the other hand, VET is also a key to decent working conditions.

Portrait of the author
The author, Ulrich Meinecke, is Councellor for Social and Labour Affairs at the German Embassy in New Delhi, India, and member of the unified service sector union, Germany (ver.di).

Source: Article by Ulrich Meinecke, Councellor for Social and Labour Affairs at the German Embassy in New Delhi, India, published in "The Indian Worker", January 2013