Training in the craft trades

Hands-on work instead of academia

When Jessica Jörges is stood on the scaffolding, one of her vital tools is always to hand in her overalls: her smartphone. In her breaks, the 21-year-old journeywoman painter from Dreieich in Hesse takes selfies or gets her colleagues to photograph her while she is plastering with a trowel. She posts the images after work on Facebook and Instagram.

Jessica Jörges is an influencer. However, instead of clothes, lipstick or trendy travel destinations, she promotes her occupation. In 2016 she launched her blog "Bunte Zukunft" – which translates as "Colourful future". She uses text, images and videos to report on her life as a journeywoman in the craft trade of painting and varnishing. Her mission is to generate enthusiasm for her trade among young people.

"Many have no idea at all how varied our occupation is. They think we spend the whole day whitewashing storefronts." In her blog Jessica provides insights into her everyday work: You can see her wallpapering walls, painting windows, insulating roof timbers or applying plaster. The young craft trades woman also documents strenuous and messy work such as washing brushes or hauling around bags of plaster. "I want to show what really happens on a building site so that applicants know what they're letting themselves in for."

"In upper secondary schools in Germany, an academic degree is still regarded as the gold standard"

Her authentic nature has proved a hit: Jessica now has around 3,500 followers. She wants to use her blog above all to reach students who are skilled with their hands and who hold the upper secondary school leaving certificate. "Lots of young people with good grades in their school-leaving qualification feel that training is a backward step. But who says you have to study at university in order to be successful?”

As a journeywoman with the higher education entrance qualification, Jessica Jörges is an exception in her sector. Only around one in seven newly appointed trainees in the craft trades have the upper secondary school leaving certificate, although companies are in desperate need of hard-working young people with a good general education. The order books of roofers, tilers, plumbers and electrical fitters are full. Bakers and butchers also have plenty to do. However, companies don't have the suitable skilled workers and trainees they need to work through all of the orders. Every year, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 apprenticeship positions in the craft trades remain unfilled. Over the past 20 years, the total number of trainees has almost halved.

The craft trades are not alone; industry and commerce, hospitals and care homes are desperately searching for apprentices. However, the trend towards higher levels of educational qualifications is resulting in increasing numbers of young people streaming into universities. Almost six out of every ten school leavers start a degree; ten years ago the figure was four out of every ten. At the same time, the number of school leavers is falling as a result of demographic change. Companies are therefore competing intensively for the growing group of students with the upper secondary school leaving certificate.

And so far with limited success. "In upper secondary schools, an academic degree is still regarded as the gold standard for ensuring a successful future," says Volker Born, head of the vocational education and training department at the German Central Association of Skilled Trades. "Many parents are of the view that a career and high income can only be achieved via a university and pass this view on to their children."

Well rewarded – poor reputation

Having said this, the prospects facing graduates from any one of more than 130 training occupations in the craft trades are highly promising. As journeymen and women, they are able to head off "on the road" to work – a tradition known as "auf die Walz" in Germany – or abroad, they are able to obtain the master craftsman title or study. In view of the positive business situation and the shortage of skilled workers, there is little risk of becoming unemployed. Also, in around 200,000 craft trade businesses, there will be a generational shift over the next 10 years. "For motivated individuals in the next generation of workers, this is a great opportunity to become self-employed and to become your own boss," says Born, underlining the opportunities available.

The decision to opt for one of the craft trade occupations also pays off financially. According to the Ifo Institute, over the course of their lives, a master craftsman or technician takes home an average of €730,000 after deducting the costs of training. If their business goes well, they earn significantly more than many university arts or social sciences graduates, for example. "However, students with the upper secondary school leaving certificate need to become aware of this,” says Volker Born, who is calling for "a broader approach to career guidance at upper secondary schools which doesn't just send young people off to university."

A survey conducted by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) provides a further reason for the shortage of apprentices in the craft trades. Researchers questioned around 1,700 pupils in general education and vocational schools in years 9 and 10. The results were surprising. In response to the question of whether they want to learn a craft trade occupation, salary and working conditions are not really that important for younger people. Many of them would certainly like to work in the craft trades. However, doing so would not impact positively on their status in their social environment.

"If pupils have the feeling that the occupation will not be well received among family and friends, then in most cases they don't choose it – even if the occupation appeals to them," says Regina Dionisius from BIBB. In addition, increasing numbers of school leavers are coming from parental homes with no knowledge of the craft trades, homes where parents expect their children to achieve the upper secondary school leaving certificate and a university degree. "This means the role models are not there to promote the craft trades and to explain the benefits."

Few women in male-dominated occupations

Many bachelor's degree students would actually be happier and more successful in a company than in a lecture hall. "An upper secondary school leaving certificate followed by a degree isn't right for everybody," explains journeywoman and painter Jessica Jörges. "Some are better off with training, or still need time to work out what they want to study."

Hands-on work instead of academia

To start with, Jessica also wasn't sure what to do after completing the higher education entrance qualification. "We were given a massive guidebook containing degree subjects," she recalls. "I highlighted three of them as 'possibilities'." She didn't really feel any of the subjects were right for her. Stressed out by thought of studying at university, she asked her parents whether she could just train as a painter and varnisher. Kirsten and Jürgen Jörges had no objections. The couple run a decorating business in Dreieich. Their daughter was good with her hands, and even as a child enjoyed painting floorboards or making boats from chunks of wood. But her parents also warned her: "The occupation is demanding. And some still have reservations about women working in the craft trades."

Jessica Jörges was not put off by this. It was clear to her that the skilled craft of painting was "her thing". She has now completed her training, and has become a guild, federal state and a national winner in painting and varnishing. There are also no problems with male colleagues. She is accepted as a painter in the company. "At the wholesalers, some people still give me a funny look when I turn up as a woman dressed in painting overalls to buy paint. But I rise above it."

Jessica would nevertheless be pleased to see more female colleagues in the industry. In her vocational school class there were just three of them. However, despite national campaigns such as "Girls' Day", interest among women in male-dominated occupations is limited. Added to which, fewer and fewer women are starting dual vocational education and training. Since 2009, the number of training agreements concluded by female apprentices has fallen by about one fifth.

Only 37 per cent of new agreements are signed by women

One of the causes is that females more frequently complete the higher education entrance qualification and go on to study more often. On average they achieve better grades in the upper secondary school leaving certificate than their male counterparts, and drop out of degree courses less frequently. Often, women also favour occupations in the healthcare and education system, such as nurse or nursery teacher. These do not fall within dual vocational education and training under the Vocational Training Act. By contrast, in construction and civil engineering, less than one in twenty trainees is female.

Old gender roles

When choosing an occupation, men and women frequently still adhere to established gender roles and occupational images which are developed from an early age – or, more precisely, which are presented at home, in the nursery, at school, and among their friends. "Even three-year-olds indirectly start thinking about their choice of job by linking being a grown-up to occupational roles," says Regina Dionisius. "From the age of six children differentiate between typical female and male occupations. At the age of nine they understand that occupations are associated with different levels of prestige." At this stage, pilots are cool for boys, and for girls it's nurses.

"Children very quickly learn what is gender-appropriate and respected in their social environment," explains Dionisius. "This influences their subsequent career choice significantly." It takes self-confidence to ignore the opinions of parents and friends. "These are often people who develop a passion for something at an early stage and who have role models."

Theresa Noack decided to become a pastry cook on a cycling tour with her family through Brittany. "In the patisseries where we stopped, there were delicious tarts and tartlets made of lemon, chocolate or apple. I wanted to be able to bake them, too." Encouraged by her parents, the young girl from Munich discarded her original plan of teacher training and began training as a pastry chef.

In the Café Waldeck in Ismaning, a family business in its fourth generation, Noack learned to fill pralines, to pour sugar and to decorate ice cream. "To start with I had a very romantic image of the pastry cook occupation. I mostly imagined decorating cakes. I didn't think about having to put up with the heat from the oven in summer or about all the cleaning." She was also unaccustomed to getting up early at 5.00 am, and even in the middle of the night at 2.00 am on Saturdays: "To start with I slept every day after work." Later on she enjoyed the free afternoons, met with friends or played volleyball.

Degree after training

Noack’s love of baking comes from her family. Her mother used to bake a lot with both her daughters. She's now amazed at what her daughter can create from chocolate or buttercream in professional competitions. Theresa Noack is Germany's best young pastry cook and – like painter Jessica Jörges – took part in the 2019 world championships of vocational skills in Kazan in Russia. The 22-year old is particularly keen on themed cakes. Her trainer Michael Deimel still raves about her examination piece on the theme of "Live like God in France" – a Gallic village with Obelix made of marzipan on the cake surrounded by comic figures created from modelling paste.

However, Noack thinks back somewhat wistfully to our close neighbour. She explains that in France pastry cooks are more respected, better paid, and are able to specialise even during the training, for example in patisserie. In Germany salaries for employees in small businesses are often comparatively low. Many journeymen and women therefore often work to achieve the title of master craftsmen in order to become self-employed.

This is not an option for Theresa Noack. She's worried that, if she were to start a business, she would barely have any time in the initial years for hobbies and for family. Instead she's now studying food science and wants to become a vocational school teacher and teach pastry cooks. "Even when I was training, I enjoyed helping young trainees understand and explaining my skilled craft to them," she says. So, Noack will become a teacher after all. It's nice when ultimately one thing leads to another.

Source: (website of the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), revised by iMOVE, April 2020