A Kiwi take on a German institution

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
15 March, 2024

New Zealanders and Germans have a lot in common. They share a socially liberal ethos, a liking for beer and the MMP electoral system. In other ways, the two countries are quite different.

I recently visited Germany with a delegation organised by the German-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce. Our mission was to learn about the German ‘dual training’ system for apprentices, which takes a very different approach than trades training in New Zealand.

About half of German school-leavers go into apprenticeships. They are employed by companies while also attending training schools.  Crucially, the companies and training schools share responsibility for training – hence, ‘dual training’. The companies also pay apprentices a wage, albeit a very modest one.

The companies all belong to chambers of commerce, to which they pay a compulsory levy, which helps fund the training schools. The government pays the rest. Apprentices do not have to pay tuition fees.

Graduates of the dual training system can attend university if they wish. As a result, many German engineers have both practical and theoretical qualifications. The delegation visited a building company, which made this impressive combination of practical skill and engineering innovation very clear. The company’s factory prefabricates a house every two days.

Cultural differences would make it difficult to replicate the dual training system in New Zealand. German companies that do not themselves train apprentices still pay the training levy without complaint. They recognise a collective duty to support the next generation of tradespeople.

The willingness of German companies to fund training collectively reflects a respect for the trades that probably goes back to the guilds of the Middle Ages. It is hard to imagine New Zealand companies being willing to do the same. But even though we could not do things in quite the German way, the highly flexible NCEA system, for all its flaws, offers opportunities for a New Zealand take on dual training.

Schools can form relationships with companies and have their senior students participate in internships while they complete NCEA with relevant courses. Students might then be employed in those companies when they leave school and be sponsored to complete a trades qualification.

This approach is already happening in some schools. A question that I will address in a forthcoming New Zealand Initiative report is how to encourage it at scale. That could give us a Kiwi ‘number-eight wire’ version of the German dual training system.

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