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Germany: a new scheme to fill the skilled labor gap – DW – 12/07/2023

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So, you’ve finished school. Now what? In Germany, many young people go to college. Others sign up for a year of voluntary social work. The one thing many young people don’t do is learn a trade. And the numbers show it. Last year, every second trade business couldn’t find enough suitable applicants for all their apprenticeship training positions.

“The trades really have problems getting enough young talent,” said Kilian Bizer, a professor of  economic policy at the University of Göttingen.

This is particularly true for trades working with climate change technologies. Tradespeople are in high demand for everything from installing solar systems or heat pumps to renovating house facades or connecting charging stations for electric cars.

Apprenticeships are also important to alleviate the shortage of skilled workers that already exists in the trades. But how do you attract young people to careers that usually require a lot of physical activity?

A special project in the Ahr Valley

One idea has come out of the Ahr Valley in western Germany. Tradespeople are particularly sought after here because the area was hit by a severe flood in 2021. Many buildings, roads and other infrastructure were damaged or completely destroyed. Volunteers poured in to help. A lot needed to be done. But like in the rest of Germany, businesses here lacked young talent.

So why not bring both things together — volunteering and the trade jobs? This is the idea behind a project initiated in March 2022 by the local state’s labor ministry and the Koblenz Chamber of Crafts.

The project lets young people try out various trades for six to eight months and at the same time help rebuild the Ahr Valley.

More than 50 companies are opening their doors to perspective carpenters, bricklayers, tilers, painters, metal workers and automotive mechanics. The Koblenz Chamber of Crafts has also opened its training workshops for participants. Plus, everyone receives accommodation and €470 ($508) per month.

Alexander Lehnhoff has run a carpentry shop in the Ahr Valley for three yearsImage: Insa Wrede/DW

Personal experience and a new line of work

Alexander Lehnhoff and Constantin Sper are two people brought together by the program.

Lehnhoff has been running his own carpentry business for three years with around 10 employees. Compared to some, he’s been lucky. On the night of the flood, his business was spared.

Sper’s family home wasn’t so lucky. After the 22-year-old finished high school, he helped out at home and volunteered in his community. Then he started studying to become a teacher.

But Sper was unhappy studying. When he found out about the project from a painter who helped renovate his family’s house, it caught his attention.

“I already had the idea of ​​learning a trade,” said Sper. “But especially after the flood, when I worked at home like a fulltime tradesman for eight months, I felt like doing something in the trade sector.”

The remains of houses and a street after massive flooding in the Ahr Valley region in Germany
The devastating 2021 flood in the Ahr Valley destroyed bridges and swept away houses, roads and carsImage: privat

Filling empty apprenticeship programs

The Koblenz Chamber of Tradework is pleased with the project. So far, more than half of the participants later start apprenticeships in one of the companies, says Ralf Hellrich from the tradework organization.

“In 2021 and 2022, we had a 10-year high in filling apprenticeship positions in the Ahr Valley,” Hellrich told DW. He believes the project had a wider impact, too, since many young people started apprenticeships in the region without taking the detour through the project.

Somewhat surprisingly, unlike other tradesmen, Lehnhoff says that he hasn’t yet had any problems recruiting young people. On the contrary, he has more applications than he can accept.

He thinks the lack of apprentices in other companies “is not necessarily because there are only bad or too few apprentices, but rather because companies don’t engage enough with the apprentices.” For him, a good team and giving employees a say are particularly important. Soon word gets around.

“The Ahr Valley is like a giant village, where everyone knows everyone and every company. Young people obviously share stories about companies,” said Lehnhoff.

This makes him optimistic that he will continue to have a relatively easy time finding new talent in the future. But just to be safe, he also takes part in a local trainee job fair that he started with other local businesses.  

A sign for the Mülligann carpentry shop in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany
The Mülligann carpentry shop, on the contrary, has managed to find enough young talentImage: Insa Wrede/DW

High job satisfaction with trades

What secondary school graduates tend to ignore is that trade work is not just tough work. For many, there is a big reward in seeing what you can do with your own hands.

“When it comes to the lives and their jobs, tradespeople are above average satisfied,” confirmed the University of Göttingen’s Bizer.

This is also evident at Lehnhoff’s carpentry business. He is very happy with his career choice, even though his father, who is also a carpenter, advised him against it. Telling him he could do something easier. Despite working 80 hours a week, Lehnhoff is showing that easier is not always better.

The Ahr Valley development project ends at the end of 2023. However, due to its success, it could be extended. “We are in discussions with the labor ministry and the project will probably be prolonged,” said Hellrich.

This article was originally written in German.

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