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West Germany: Up from Medievalism

3 minute read

One of the rites of spring in West Germany last week was the dunking of young Germans in huge wooden tubs full of water. Like most such playful survivals of more leisurely times, this was the celebration of a medieval tradition more honored in modern Germany than anywhere else: the apprentice system. The water-soaked victims were printer apprentices who, having passed their spring journeyman examinations, submitted ritually to ”washing the stupidity away.” Young ladies have entered the craft, too, since the war—and they were even more enthusiastically dunked.

Ancient Practice. While most countries depend on vocational schools to train their workers. West Germany has the world’s largest apprentice population (1,200,000). German industrialists think apprenticeship does the job better, while imbuing the apprentice with a respect for craftsmanship and loyalty to the employer.

Seventy-five percent of all German boys and girls leave school at 14. but nearly all the boys and about half the girls become apprentices. Apprenticeships are offered in 124 trades, ranging from hog raising to organ building, and generally take three years to complete. After passing stiff exams, an apprentice becomes a journeyman —a stage that in medieval times meant that he journeyed about the country to find jobs. Only carpentry retains that ancient practice; on Germany’s back roads, the wandering carpenter, dressed in traditional bell-bottom trousers and a widebrimmed felt hat, can still be seen.

These days, most German youths do not have to go journeying for jobs. Big German companies pride themselves on the size and thoroughness of their apprentice programs. Siemens has 180 special instructors for its 6,300 apprentices. Daimler-Benz, whose founder Gottlieb Daimler rose from the apprentice ranks, has a mountaintop set aside for apprentice classrooms and recreational facilities.

White-Collar Yearnings. Under German law, an apprentice may work only 36 hours a week, must spend an additional eight hours weekly studying technical or liberal arts subjects. The pay is a low $15 to $40 monthly, but the company usually provides for board and lodging if the apprentice is training away from home. Siemens figures that each apprentice costs $1,000 a year to train, and is worth it. Though apprentices are not required to go to work for the outfit that trained them, 98% of them do.

Since most young Germans inevitably yearn for white-collar respectability and higher salaries, the largest number of apprentices in Germany today are training to become merchants, bank workers, and salesmen. German labor unions have no quarrel with the apprentice system, but are watchful to protect apprentices from being mistreated or misused as cheap labor. The unions hardly need worry; in labor-short Germany, it is a foolish firm indeed that would do anything to scare off future skilled workers.

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