Following 12 years of elementary- and high-school education in Germany, 22-year-old Sabrina Kleinsorg had to make a decision for her professional career two years ago.
"Most of my fellow students wanted to go to university, opted for a higher education, but I wanted to earn money immediately, while learning a profession at the same time," Kleinsorg says.
Her own family history includes mostly blue-collar workers, and Kleinsorg's parents favored an education in skilled crafts and trades for their daughter.
For Kleinsorg, the choice was easy: She opted for an apprenticeship in the field of engineering.
Germany's unique apprenticeship program provided an opportunity for Kleinsorg to receive hands-on experience on the factory floor, paired with complementary theoretical training at a vocational school.
In 2010, she started a paid three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship program as an industrial electronics technician at U.S. automaker Ford's plant in Cologne, Germany.
Today, in her third training year, Kleinsorg earns more than $1,200 per month and receives a number of social benefits, including health insurance.
"My friends from school thought it was 'uncool' to train in a technical job, especially as I entered a male-dominated work environment," Kleinsorg says. "But I was immediately accepted by my male colleagues, and today, I am far better off financially than they are."
Her choice also means job security.
In Germany, 61 percent of all apprentices receive full-time employment at the company where they train. And the rate is growing, according to the latest statistics from the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry, DIHK.
Ford Motor Company in Germany states that nearly 95 percent of all trainees are offered a regular job and stay with the company.
"Many of my friends from high school will have to pay back loans after their college studies and still face an uncertain employment future," Kleinsorg adds.
A Pillar in the Crisis
Compared to other countries in the 27-nation European Union, Germany's export-driven economy is going fairly strong despite challenging economic conditions. The overall unemployment rate in Germany is 6.5 percent.
Many other eurozone countries are in recession and burdened with high unemployment rates. The situation is especially troublesome for young Europeans under the age of 25.
According to the European Union statistics office, Eurostat, the youth unemployment rate rose to 22.8 percent in September, up from 21.7 percent the previous year. In Greece and Spain, that number is over 50 percent. In Germany, the youth unemployment rate is just 8 percent.
"One reason for the so-called miracle of low youth unemployment rates in Germany is our apprenticeship system," says Dr. Andreas Koenig, Head of Section, Technical and Vocational Education and Training at GIZ, an association that supports the German government in the field of sustainable development.
"It is this transfer of knowledge from schools and training programs directly into the work environment and vice versa, which makes the difference," Koenig says.
Courses are designed by employers and government specialists but also include input from Germany's trade unions. Training programs are also regularly adjusted to market needs.
The so-called "dual system" — split into 60 percent workplace training and 40 percent classroom-based education — is widely regarded as a model of business investment in social mobility and in the country's skilled workforce of the future.
"It is all about building your own work force on a high-quality basis," says Volker Theissen, manager for learning and development at Ford Europe.
Germany's apprenticeship system trains approximately 1.5 million people per year and matches the worker's skills with the demands and requirements of today's rapidly changing work environment.
"In the course of our apprenticeship, we learn many important facets about our job, but also a lot about the company. And from the start, we are fully integrated and adopt to our future workplace," says 18-year-old André Etzweiler, an apprentice at Ford in Cologne.
"And, while the training immediately creates a symbiosis between the young worker and his employer, it nevertheless prepares us well for the broader job market in case we cannot or do not want to stay with the company," Etzweiler explains.
Historic System, With a Modern Touch
Vocational training in Germany has a centuries-old tradition and dates back to the guild system of the Middle Ages. From bakers to hairdressers and welders to bank workers, the German system focuses on top-level education in close collaboration with industry.
Germany's small- and medium-size businesses, the so-called Mittelstand, are highly dependent on the next generation of well-trained workers.
Germany's Mittelstand accounts for nearly 70 percent of all exports. Many experts say that these specialized businesses are the engine of economic growth and a main contributor to Germany's still healthy economy.
"If we want to stay innovative, especially in regard to our foreign competition, then we need young skilled workers with young ideas," says Oliver Huhle, manager at Huhle Steel and Metal Construction, a firm with nearly 100 employees based in Wiesbaden.
"Many of today's business executives in Germany began their career as apprentices, including myself," says 34-year-old Huhle.
The success of Germany's dual-training system has led countries like the United States, China and India to study it as a possible model for their own labor markets.
"We have seen an increasing number of requests in the past year from other countries, inquiring how we cooperate to implement elements of the German system. Just last week, we signed a memorandum of understanding with Italy," says Thomas Renner from the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Berlin.
In times of tight budgets and ailing economies, however, many international companies have been shying away from long-term investment in a larger work force. Many foreign corporations fear that long-established socioeconomic structures — one secret to success in Germany — might be the missing link abroad.
However, German experts say that core elements would be adoptable in other markets.
"If other countries, such as the United States, want to implement the system, it does not require the enormous state support that you see in Germany," Theissen from Ford Europe says.
"Companies can easily initiate cooperation and exchange with already existing technical colleges in any region," he adds.
While German carmakers, such as Mercedes or BMW, have already exported the system to their factories in the United States, Ford has so far only been offering apprenticeships to young applicants at plants in Germany.
A Demographic Challenge
But at Germany's workbenches, the system is facing a major challenge these days: low birthrates.
Mid-sized businesses, especially, face a shortage of qualified applicants, in part due to the demographic changes, but also as a result of strong competition from large companies.
At the end of September, German officials counted more than 33,000 open training positions.
As a result, German companies are increasingly looking across the borders to meet their needs.
"Several firms in the southern region are now recruiting young people from Spain who want to receive technical training. These companies offer a four-week language course prior to the apprenticeship," says Ulrike Friedrich from DIHK in Berlin.
"And hotels and restaurants in the German state of Thuringia are training adolescents from the Czech Republic and Hungary," Friedrich adds.
In the crisis, one country's loss could be another country's gain.
Latest statistics show that there is a growing influx of immigrants from crisis-stricken nations of the eurozone, including a large number of young workers.
"It is a win-win situation for both sides," Friedrich says.
"The young foreigners will receive high-quality training, fill gaps in small German businesses, but also have the chance to go back to their countries as skilled workers at a later point," she says.