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Work, work, work, work, work: Vocational Education and Training in Germany!

By Stina Koster

Those of you who have already talked with us language assistants before might have noticed that most of us share a common characteristic: Many language assistants want to become teachers when they are back in their respective countries. This is my dream, too. However, I am going to be a teacher at a very distinct school – a vocational school.

You are probably thinking of many questions right now, such as What is a vocational school in Germany? What is the purpose of this school? Which degree will you get after graduation? Who attends this kind of school? What do you do in a vocational school? I hope to clarify as many questions as possible by describing some characteristics of the vocational system in Germany to you and by using my own experiences to illustrate it.

When you have just graduated from high school and you want to start working…

…you need to make some decisions: What kind of job are you interested in? What are the requirements? Some professions (e.g. physicians, lawyers, teachers) require a university degree. For other jobs, your future employer will most certainly ask you whether you have completed a structured vocational training in this profession or in a similar field before. Of course, there will always be jobs where you do not need to have a professional qualification – this is most often the case for jobs with low pay or a low level of difficulty, for part-time jobs like waiters/waitresses, or when you already have a lot of work experience in the specific field. However, having a professional qualification makes it much easier for you to get a job that you want and it is necessary if you ever want to climb the career ladder.

In order to obtain a professional qualification, you have to complete 2-3.5 years of structured training. Some of these trainings solely take place in a special kind of vocational school which is called Berufsfachschule or Berufskolleg. But the great majority of vocational trainings follows the model of a dual vocational education and training system (Duale Berufsausbildung). Currently, 327 different occupations are taught in the dual system (1). (For a list of all occupations see the following list (2)).


The dual vocational education and training system in Germany

The dual system combines an apprenticeship in a company and a vocational education at a vocational school (Berufsschule) in one course. So, what does it mean for you if you decide to become a banker? Or a baker? Or a nurse? Or an industrial management assistant? First, you have to apply to a company which is looking for apprentices (Auszubildende). If they choose you, the company will take care of you being enrolled at the closest vocational school. During your apprenticeship, you will get paid a lower salary than your colleagues, but that is just because you are still in training. In 2015, the average salary was 826 € per month.

What happens next? How is this training structured? To make it more palpable for you, I am going to tell you about my experiences. As a future teacher at vocational schools with an economical focus, my training does not only require a bachelor’s degree in economics and a second subject, and a master’s degree (Master of Education in Wirtschaftspädagogik (Wirtschaftspädagogik combines economics, education and my second subject)), but also a professional qualification related to economics or a one-year internship in this profession. Therefore, I underwent a structured training to become an industrial management assistant before I started studying.

Yeah! Becoming an industrial management assistant…

First of all, what is an industrial management assistant? Industrial management assistants work in many sectors, mostly in the manufacturing industry. However, their training includes so many different aspects that they are qualified to work in various administrative departments within a company.

How does the dual system work? How is the training structured? The training for becoming an industrial management assistant has a duration of three years – under certain circumstances it is possible to reduce it to two years. In the first year, the apprentices have to work in their companies for three days in the week while attending vocational school on the other two days. In the second year, they must attend school only for one day, but work on the other four days. In addition, during this year they must take a midterm exam. In the third year, they only go to school once a week, to their company on four days, and at the end they will have three big written final exams and one oral exam.

What exactly happens in vocational schools and in the company?

The company is considered to be not only the workplace of the apprentice, but also a place of learning. A governmental training regulation (Ausbildungsordnung(4)) binds the company to include certain aspects of the occupational profile of an industrial management assistant in their training program. The apprentice has to spend time in several different departments to get to know their duties. For how long you have to stay in each department depends on the plan which your company devised for you. For example, during my apprenticeship I spent four months in the billing and encashment department, and a month each in the accounting department, the purchasing department, human resources, controlling, various sales departments… In each department, my colleagues showed me how they are doing their work, they explained the tasks to me and how they are connected within the company, and they gave me various tasks to work on. Whenever I stayed in a department for a longer time, I had my own field of responsibility or certain projects that I had to carry out.

At the vocational school, trainees learn the theoretical parts of their job. For industrial management assistants, it means that they take English (Business English), German, and Politics throughout the three years. In addition, they have different subjects in each year which focuses on one business process each. The subjects and their contents and aims follows the Rahmenlehrplan (5) – a standard issued by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany, so that it is ensured that the theoretical part of a dual training is the same for all apprentices in all federal states of Germany. There are 12 different subjects in total (called Lernfeld), e.g. marketing, human resources, accounting, rights and obligations of apprentices, production, finance. After each year, you will get a school certificate which shows your grades in the vocational school.

The finals…

The national finals (Abschlussprüfung) at the end of the apprenticeship are the one big event which will determine your final grade. The first part is a written exam on business processes. You have 180 minutes to answer as many questions as you can; ranging from multiple-choice questions to written-response questions, and to devising marketing strategies or writing business letters. The outcome of this exam counts toward 40% of your final grade. The second and third parts are taken the next day: One exam deals mostly with questions of financial and managerial accounting (90 minutes, 20% of the final grade). The other exam deals with economic and social matters (60 minutes, 10% of the final grade). After a few weeks, the last part – an oral exam – must be passed. The examinee has to give a presentation about a business process of their company and should be able to answer all following questions of the examiners (the questions can be related to the topic of the presentation, but often the questions aim also at all different sort of topics). This last exam lasts for about 30 minutes and counts toward 30% of your final grade.

After passing these finals, you have proven that you have reached the goal of acquiring Berufliche Handlungskompetenz (vocational proficiency)(6). The apprentice receives three certificates: one certificate from the vocational school, one graduation certificate with the results of the finals, and one training certificate issued by the company.

The End

Finally, you have survived three (or fewer) years of learning practical and theoretical knowledge, you formed friendships with other apprentices, you learned about various parts of your company, you met many nice colleagues and started liking your work. Imagine yourself at the ceremony in your vocational school, being congratulated on the successful start in your professional life. Now you are ready to start working in a company!

Final Notes

What do you think about this dual system of vocational education and training? Can you think of any advantages or disadvantages? Do you like it?

If you have questions regarding the German education system with different kinds of schools, I recommend Karoline Gotchel’s article to you ( The German Education System and the “Children’s Garden”).

If you have any other questions or if you want to discuss your opinion on the German vocational system, you are always welcome to talk with me when you see me on campus or during tutoring. And of course you can send me an e-mail <skoster>!


1 Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung (2016). Datenreport zum Berufsbildungsbericht 2016. Informationen und Analysen zur Entwicklung der beruflichen Bildung. URL: https://www.bibb.de/dokumente/pdf/bibb_datenreport_2016.pdf [Last Access: March 14, 2017].

2 Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung (2015). Bekanntmachung des Verzeichnisses der anerkannten Ausbildungsberufe und des Verzeichnisses der zuständigen Stellen. URL: https://www.bibb.de/dokumente/pdf/Verzeichnis_anerk_AB_2015.pdf [Last Access: March 14, 2017].

3 Bundestinstitut für Berufsbildung (2016). Präsentationen zur dualen Berufsausbildung in Deutschland. URL: https://www.bibb.de/govet/de/54880.php [Last Access: March 14, 2017].

4 IndKfmAusbV (2002). Verordnung über die Berufsausbildung zum Industriekaufmann/zur Industriekauffrau. URL: https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/bundesrecht/indkfmausbv_2002/gesamt.pdf [Last Access: March 14, 2017].

5 Sekretariat der Ständigen Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (2002). Rahmenlehrplan für den Ausbildungsberuf Industriekaufmann / Industriekauffrau. URL: http://www.kmk.org/fileadmin/Dateien/pdf/Bildung/BeruflicheBildung/rlp/industriekfm.pdf [Last Access: March 14, 2017].

6 Definition of Berufliche Handlungskompetenz (vocational proficiency) according to the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany: The vocational proficiency is defined as the willingness and ability of each individual to act appropriately as well as individually and socially responsible in professional, social, and private situations. Vocational proficiency contains professional skills, personal skills, and social skills.

Sekretariat der Ständigen Konferenz der Kultusminister der Länder in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Hrsg.) (2011). Handreichung für die Erarbeitung von Rahmenlehrplänen der Kultusministerkonferenz für den berufsbezogenen Unterricht in der Berufsschule und ihre Abstimmung mit Ausbildungsordnungen des Bundes für anerkannte Ausbildungsberufe. URL: http://www.kmk.org/fileadmin/Dateien/veroeffentlichungen_beschluesse/2011/2011_09_23_GEP-Handreichung.pdf [Last Access: March 16, 2017].

Click here to watch an interview with Stina Köster!

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