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Germany: multiple VET stakeholder responses to Covid-19 outbreak

Various actions have been launched in Germany to keep the vocational education and training system stable. Securing the remuneration of apprentices, organising learning and examinations according to safety regulations, and supporting companies that offer apprenticeship places are at the core of the activities.

Special regulations on short-time work for apprentices

On 13 March 2020, the Bundestag passed a law to relax temporarily the regulations on short-time work (with retroactive effect from 1 March). The new law intends to prevent dismissals. Under certain conditions, apprentices are also eligible for short-time allowance, though this measure may be implemented only after a six-week reduction in working hours. Until then, apprentices receive full training remuneration. When a company registers for short-time work, it has to provide a written explanation of why, and since when, training cannot be maintained, in order to avoid misuse.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, only a few German companies have put their apprentices on short-time work, particularly due to their legal obligation to continue providing training. Companies are encouraged to adapt the training schedule, to transfer the apprentices to another department or to assign tasks, which can be performed at home. In cases where trainees work in the companies, precautions must be taken in the company, including providing sufficient space and hygiene measures, as well as provision of disinfectants and information on general hygiene regulations.

Solutions for final examinations

About 400 000 VET students are expected to complete their vocational training this year. After a period of uncertainty, the competent bodies (chambers of skilled crafts or chambers of industry and commerce) have ensured that the final examinations will be held so that all apprentices will be able to enter into working life no later than this autumn. In the rare cases where the examination date falls after contract expiration date, the chambers recommend agreeing an extension.

Written examinations in branches of industry and commerce will be carried out nationwide in mid-June (five to six weeks later than originally planned). However, due to the postponement of most examination dates, the time span between the written and oral examination is significantly reduced.

Now that examinations are scheduled, the health of all who are involved is a top priority. Chambers and schools are working under high pressure to comply with safety and health requirements. Wearing a face mask will be mandatory; these must be brought by the examinees themselves. The measures adopted apply to practical examinations in companies and training workshops as well as to oral and written examinations taken at school; social distancing restrictions pose a logistical challenge. For the same reason, it is particularly difficult for small enterprises in skilled crafts to organise the practical part.

A further challenge is supervision of the examinations, which is often a role for senior citizens. However, this group belong to the people at higher risk if contracting Covid-19 so some employees of the chambers of industry and commerce have agreed to supervise examinations. The need for examiners is also greater than in previous years, as the examination groups must be significantly smaller.

Impact on VET schools

Individual Federal States are responsible for the education system and also for vocational schools. Consequently, the regulations on classroom teaching in VET schools differ by geography. In Bayern, for example, final classes started again on 27 April 2020; only a small number of pupils were involved, in order to wait for the further development of the infection and to give the schools the opportunity to gain experience. From this, a further gradual expansion of classroom teaching took place on May 11, including the classes preparing for the examination next year. The specific school provides information about the timetable, which can be reduced in scope and adapted if necessary, for example by prioritizing exam-relevant subjects and those that are relevant for the acquisition of school-leaving certificates. Physical education is halted and there are no more compulsory performance assessments during the second half of the school year. Upon application, there is the possibility of participating in a performance assessment to improve grades.

Post-crisis prospects offer concerns and optimism

The close link of the apprenticeship system (dual system) to the labour market may lead to a decline in the number of apprenticeship places. The situation varies by economic sector. Some sectors have been hit harder than others by the Covid-19 crisis and companies might not be able be to offer apprenticeship places, or only a reduced number, in autumn when the next apprenticeship year starts. Stakeholders involved in VET are aware of the difficulties in sectors such as gastronomy and tourism where the demand for apprentices will probably tend to decline. In contrast, even more well-qualified young professionals are likely to be sought in the IT sector.

According to a study published at the end of May 2020 by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), a reduction of about 25.000 new apprenticeship contracts is expected in 2020 compared to 2019. A major reason is that potential apprentices with higher education entrance qualifications may opt for alternative educational pathways, such as academic education. Analyses of previous critical economic situations show such compensatory movements. It is important to analyse how better to support young people with and without lower secondary school leaving certificate in their search for an apprenticeship place.

The overall challenge is to keep the number of apprenticeship places stable in order to secure the needed skilled employees for recovery and future growth, and to develop sector-specific approaches. The training activities of companies should be supported by emergency financial assistance, since they contribute to securing the skills needed in the future. In some sectors there is even a shortage of skilled workers already in the current critical economic situation.

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