German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Roentgen school in Berlin. Germany’s system of technical and vocational education and training has helped keep youth unemployment low. Picture: REUTERS/MAURIZIO GAMBARINI
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Roentgen school in Berlin. Germany’s system of technical and vocational education and training has helped keep youth unemployment low. Picture: REUTERS/MAURIZIO GAMBARINI

IF RECENT history is anything to go by, the newspapers will be full of stories over the next few weeks of matriculants with B passes desperate to get into universities being turned away because the universities are full.

The media usually portray this as a disaster for the matriculants, making out that they have no other option and that unemployment and poverty stare them in the face.

This need not be the case and can be avoided if SA has a proper system of vocational education and training in place. Technical and vocational training should be seen as a viable and desirable route for matriculating students who fail to qualify to get into universities.

In Germany, one of the most successful economies, this certainly is the case. There are 1.4-million students receiving technical and vocational education and training in 329 recognised occupations in Germany.

After a compulsory 10 years of schooling, students can decide either to continue with a general academic education or to switch to technical and vocational education and training at a vocational school.

What is more, if they choose the technical and vocational route, they start working at the same time. This is possible because 6,000 German companies take in trainees. They are based in all the major sectors of the economy including engineering, motor manufacturing, building and construction, energy and water provision, agriculture, mining, transport, warehousing, information and communication technology, financial and legal services, and more.

The trainees receive theoretical and practical training at the same time. Various models range from school in the morning and work in the afternoon, to two months of school followed by four months of work at a company.

The trainees are paid by the companies they work for. Their pay ranges from €374 per month in their first year to €993 per month in their third year.

Pay is much less than that of qualified artisans in Germany, but it still covers their cost of living. Attendance at the vocational schools is free, as they are government schools.

About half the trainees stay on at the companies in which they have received their training, while others move on to new companies.

Their remuneration is high, enabling breadwinners to lead comfortable lives and provide for all the needs of their families.

This system of dual education, as it is known, has resulted in very low youth unemployment in Germany. The national level of unemployment is 6%, while youth unemployment is only 8%.

How does this compare with SA? The expanded unemployment rate (including discouraged workers who are no longer looking for jobs) is 34% for the whole labour force and 45% for youth between the ages of 15 and 34 years.

We have a dual education and training system rather similar to that of Germany, but it is simply not delivering.

We have 50 technical and vocational education and training colleges whose students need to be employed or have internships, but most are not.

The whole system is performing dismally in spite of efforts of the Department of Higher Education and Training to improve the colleges’ performance and grow their student intake.

The technical and vocational education and training system in SA requires a complete overhaul and face-lift to a point in which it is perceived by the youth as a highly desirable and prestigious route.

The overhaul requires that the teaching and management staff be enhanced and enthused, technology upgraded to the state of the art currently in use in industry, and the number of colleges and their intake expanded extensively.

Above all, South African companies and trade unions need to buy into the system. Preferably, every company above a certain size should take in trainees who then receive a dual education. Unions need to agree to lower levels of remuneration for trainees until they qualify.

The media also need to come onside by recognising the immense value and contribution that vocational education and training can make to the economy and society.

The annual results of technical and vocational education and training colleges and the number of trainees who qualify need to be as well-covered as the matric results.

The benefits to the economy, to employment creation, to the youth, and to all of SA will be immense.

• Maree is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town