Apprenticeships: Lessons from Germany in choosing the right candidates

By Mary Ridge, Head of Professional Services in Ireland for global assessment specialist cut-e.

The Department of Education and Skills and the Apprenticeship Council are keen to promote apprenticeships, in order to strengthen the Irish economy, deliver the skills that employers need and to offer young people a viable future. Other European countries are striving to do something similar. One that has got it right is Germany, and the success of their national apprenticeship model is something that we’re all aiming to replicate.

Apprenticeships are integral to the education system in Germany and they’ve undoubtedly played a part in the country’s economic success. Germany has a ‘dual system’ where apprenticeships combine theoretical training in the classroom (funded by the state) and hands-on practical experience in the workplace (funded by employers). Germany also has tradition on its side. Since the Middle Ages – and the country’s medieval guilds – technical skills have been highly valued in their society. Consequently, many prominent figures, such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, started their careers with vocational training.

Germany’s apprenticeship system involves over 300 trades whereas Ireland’s covers 27. But for young people, the appeal of apprenticeships – and their combination of on-the-job training and academic study without debt – is growing.

Equally, apprenticeships are becoming more attractive for employers, as there’s a growing appreciation of the benefits they provide. However, the real challenge for employers isn’t so much introducing apprenticeships, it’s attracting and selecting the right applicants.

Recruiting apprentices is a different proposition from recruiting other staff. Because they’re usually school leavers, your candidates will all have similar qualifications and they’re unlikely to have much previous work experience (if any), which makes it difficult for them to answer competency-based questions at an interview. So how do you choose between them?

Like their German counterparts, many of Ireland’s apprentice recruiters have found that the answer is through assessment. But what should you assess for?

Essentially it all boils down to one key question: will the candidate behave in a way that fits your organisation and fits the specific role they’re applying for? That’s ultimately what you want to know. It’s all about how well they match the role, whether they’ll fit within your culture and whether they’ll feel engaged and motivated to achieve their potential in your organisation.

Their behaviour will depend on their values and their attitude to learning. This will be reflected in aspects such as their reliability, punctuality and conscientiousness. Depending on the role, there may be other behaviours you require, such as teamwork or creative thinking. The information you’ll need to make an objective and informed decision can usually be obtained from a range of different assessments, deployed thoughtfully at different stages from attraction through to final hiring. Such assessments include values and interests based questionnaires, skills tests, situational judgement questionnaires, interviews (face-to-face and video) ability tests, and personality measures.

Because young people have grown up with technology, they’re comfortable completing assessments via tablets and smartphones. For example, we’ve recently developed assessments in a ‘WhatsApp-style’ for a large engineering firm. The ability to deliver assessments via a mobile platform is becoming an important consideration when choosing an assessment supplier.

The challenge of choice
One interesting challenge that many large employers of apprentices face is that of choice. Some organisations provide more than one apprenticeship scheme. As they have specialist divisions, they offer different apprenticeship options covering practical and technical roles. Prospective candidates are asked to choose which of these apprenticeship schemes they’d like to apply for. This puts the burden of choice onto young and inexperienced candidates, who are left to decide for themselves which apprenticeship programme would be best suited for them. The stakes are high here as the programme they join will determine their ultimate career path.

Once again, it seems, Germany has a model that can help here. We’ve worked with Siemens in Germany to develop an online ‘pre-application’ assessment which analyses the preferences and strengths of school leavers and helps them choose the right apprenticeship programme. The results guide young people by suggesting which of the Siemens programmes is best suited to them.

Irish employers are increasingly recognising that offering apprenticeships is a new way to recruit talented young people with potential. It is therefore worth investing now to ensure you have appropriate processes in place to select the best candidates.

Categories: Recruitment

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