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In the countries hardest hit by Europe's debt crisis, youth unemployment is getting even worse. It was already bad, and now in Spain and Greece nearly half of all those under age 25 are jobless. Germany, though, has the highest rate of youth employment in all of Europe. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Hamburg, that is partly thanks to an apprenticeship system that has its roots in the Middle Ages.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old Robin Dittmar has been obsessed with airplanes for as long as he can remember. As a little boy, the sound of an airplane would send him into the backyard to peer into the sky. Even today, Robin sees his car as a kind of ersatz Boeing.
ROBIN DITTMAR: I have the number 747 as the number plate of my car. So I'm really in love with this airplane.
WESTERVELT: Robin's dream of becoming a commercial pilot was dashed by less-than-perfect grades. But his grades were still good enough to get into an apprenticeship program with Lufthansa Technik, the technical arm of Europe's largest airline responsible for aircraft maintenance and repair across the globe.
A third of the way through his three and a half years of training at Lufthansa technical headquarters in Hamburg, Robin is honing the skills required to become an aircraft mechanic. The brightly-lit workshop is a hive of activity. Teenagers dressed in navy blue overalls and Lufthansa T-shirts are drilling, filing, soldering and manipulating sheet metal, learning the basics.
Robin's apprenticeship is part of Germany's well-established and successful dual system, so-called because training is done both in-house at a company and partly at local vocational colleges. The majority of his time is spent on the job here at Lufthansa, either in workshops like this or actually working on real aircraft and engines, on deadline, supervised by an experienced full time mechanic they call a training buddy. Hans-Peter Meinhold is Lufthansa's head of vocational training.
HANS-PETER MEINHOLD: They are taking the apprentice with them in their work. They are integrating them in their work and they are making real training on the job. So it's a one-to-one situation.
WESTERVELT: For an aviation buff like Robin, getting to work on real machines so soon, not on dummies, is not only a sign that his employers see potential in him, but also fuels his passion for planes.
DITTMAR: I like the system like it's here. I know that I will be a good aircraft mechanic when I'm out of the apprenticeship, so that's very cool to know.
WESTERVELT: Robin is taking the path that some 60 percent of German high school graduates tread: he's chosen vocational over academic education. Throughout his training, Lufthansa pays Robin roughly a third of the starting wage a qualified mechanic would get, or about $1,000 a month. That's a fact Meinhold says some foreign visitors can't get their head around.
MEINHOLD: I tell them they don't pay anything for it, they get paid by the companies, they get money for their trainings. You are training them and you are paying them for that? They can't understand this.
WESTERVELT: Germany's dual system trains 1.5 million people a year across the country. Across the board, from bakers and car mechanics, to carpenters and violin-makers, about 90 percent of apprentices successfully complete their training, government figures show, and about half of those stay on in the company that trained them.
British Prime Minister David Cameron recently called for the UK to emulate parts of the German apprentice system. But Rolf von Luede, an economic sociologist at the University of Hamburg, isn't so sure the German system would translate well to other parts of Europe.
ROLF VON LUEDE: One of the crucial aspects of the German dual system is that it is created by a cooperation of the employers and the trade unions. Really a model that ensures that the qualifications that are needed within the industry are supported by this apprenticeship.
WESTERVELT: Today, Germany has a problem Britain, Spain and other European countries can only dream of. It doesn't have enough skilled workers to meet the demands of its economy. According to von Luede, this deficit is the result of a dramatic demographic shift. There are half as many high school graduates in the former East as there were only five years ago. Von Luede believes the solution is for Germany to relax its immigration policies.
LUEDE: Because the German population is shrinking. Migration has to be orientated at people who are qualified or who may be qualified in the future by the educational system of Germany.
WESTERVELT: To address the problem, the government just made it a little easier for skilled foreign workers outside the EU to come to Germany and stay by lowering the income requirement by more than $25,000.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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