#speeddating | Germany’s Apprentice Challenge: Finding Young Applicants

MUNICH, Germany—The vaunted German workforce training system has a problem: a shortage of young people seeking apprenticeships.

In Germany, workers as young as 15 can apply to be paid for on-the-job training while attending classes. For decades the system provided a steady flow of skilled workers to German companies while keeping youth unemployment—a problem for many European countries—in check.

But now German companies are struggling to fill apprentice openings they have long relied on to produce the next generation of workers. Some use Instagram, employee rewards and team-building games alongside speed-dating-style job fairs to draw in applicants. They are still falling short.

That is a potential caution sign to many countries, including the U.S., that have sought to replicate the German model. President Trump has put expanding apprenticeships at the center of his workforce development agenda. He is aiming to promote such programs for workplaces such as restaurants and warehouses, where they traditionally haven’t existed in the U.S., even as unemployment hovers around a 50-year-low.

There are two driving factors behind Germany’s growing number of vacancies: Young people now make up a smaller slice of the country’s population, and that group is increasingly interested in attending college.

In Germany, 32% of companies were unable to fill at least some of their apprenticeship slots last year, according to the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the national organization that oversees the programs. That is well up from just 12% with vacancies in 2006. In hospitality, more than half of employers failed to fill apprenticeships. In the logistics and transportation field, 40% had vacancies last year.

“The effects are already obvious,” said

Ulrike Friedrich,

an education and training expert at the association. “Restaurants have undesired closing days or businesses are closing if they do not find qualified people.”

It is not uncommon for companies to turn down work or require customers to wait longer to receive services because of a shortage of workers, she said.

The number of people who registered as apprenticeship candidates in Germany, a proxy for interest in the system, declined to 535,623 last year from more than 800,000 in 1999, the association said.

Experts point to the dual pressures of demographics and college. Fifteen- to 24-year-olds—the typical target age for the apprenticeships—account for 9.9% of the population this year in Germany versus 13% in the U.S., the U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Meanwhile, college enrollment in Germany increased to 57% in 2017 from 33% in 2000, according to the German Statistical Office. The pay premium for college graduates has grown in Germany, enticing more young adults to pursue higher education, said Sebastian Link, a labor economist at the Ifo Institute in Munich.

Attending college, which is free for those who are accepted, is also attractive because it opens up thousands of fields of study compared with about 350 apprenticeship professions.

“The increase in college-enrollment rates has been a main goal of policy in the last years, and strongly supported by the government,” Mr. Link said. “Now, they have to deal with the side effect that apprentice slots are not filled.”

Another factor is the German minimum wage, a policy instituted in 2015, which is higher than many apprentices’ starting pay. Those who complete apprenticeships earn much more than the minimum, but it can be difficult to persuade some young people to accept lower pay for up to three years when jobs are abundant, said

Gunther Friedl,

dean of the Technical University of Munich School of Management.

Meanwhile, some would-be apprentices may lack the basic math and writing skills they need to step into apprenticeships, said

Bertram Brossardt,

chief executive of the Bavarian Industry Association.

“A certain [set] of young people don’t have the right skills,” he said.

The Charles Hotel in Munich is among those setting a high bar. Part of the Rocco Forte luxury chain, it seeks apprentices who are proficient in English and have passed exams necessary to be admitted into a university.

While it is “of course beneficial to have a university degree,” said

Martin Hanke,

human resources supervisor at the hotel, “hospitality is more about gaining experience.”

The hotel chain uses Instagram to market jobs to potential apprentices. It seeks to entice candidates by offering discounted stays at luxury hotels and an employee rewards program to earn gift cards and money for travel. It also offers apprentices the opportunity to do part of their training in another country.

That drew

Audrey Simpson,

22, who recently completed her apprenticeship at the hotel and was hired as an event coordinator.

Ms. Simpson said she is considering taking part-time college courses, but has been focused on impressing her bosses so she might earn a transfer to the chain’s Balmoral property in Scotland.

“I wanted to do something practical,” she said. “It’s my nature. I learn by doing.”

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The hotel aims to have about eight apprentices a year, but in recent years has taken as few as two because it couldn’t find qualified candidates, Mr. Hanke said. And while the hotel is eager to hire any apprentice who completes the program, about half depart after earning a certificate, many to take jobs overseas.

Other businesses that work hard to recruit face an uphill battle.

Aldi Süd, the German grocery store chain, employs 4,800 apprentices, accounting for about 10% of its workforce. The company holds an apprentice challenge for first-year trainees, in which they gather from across Germany to compete in team-building games. Management trainees from around the country meet at a single store each year and fully run its operations for a month.

The company says the trainees are essential to filing future openings across the company, from store operations to jobs in administration, logistics and technology.

Aldi Süd holds team-building challenges for first-year apprentices.


Photo:

Frankhoemann/Sven Simon/DPA/Zuma Press

The apprentices are also a relatively low-cost source of labor for the chain. Apprentices receive a monthly salary of 950 euros ($1,043) their first year. By year three, they earn 1,200 euros a month.

Aldi has widespread recruiting efforts, ranging from in-store advertisements to school visits to speed-dating-style job fairs. But despite the efforts, the company was still hustling to fill 2,000 slots this summer, said

Anja Königstein,

a human resources marketing manager at Aldi.

“The apprentice positions in store operations are usually only filled shortly before the start of the apprenticeship,” she said.

Write to Eric Morath at eric.morath@wsj.com

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