After graduating from the National Technical University of Athens, Vlasios Ntizos spent months sending out as many as six résumés a day. His luck finally turned this year when he won an apprenticeship at Siemens in Berlin, beating out more than 1,000 Greeks to train for three years as an electrical engineer. “I guess I am one of the chosen few,” Ntizos says during a break from dismantling electric plugs in the sprawling training center at Siemensstadt, the company’s main manufacturing complex.
Ntizos, 25, is one of 29 European youths who were chosen by Germany’s biggest engineering company. It’s the first time Siemens has made a concerted effort to add foreigners to its crop of apprentices in Germany. The European debt crisis has sent a wave of job seekers to Germany, where a rigorous trainee system churns out a steady stream of skilled professionals. Recruiting foreigners promises to give German companies such as Siemens a halo as Europe’s largest economy seeks to avoid gaining a reputation for bullying laggards into austerity. Explains management board member Brigitte Ederer: “For Siemens, this is a small contribution against youth unemployment in Europe.”
A third of the 29 foreign apprentices are from Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment exceeds 50 percent, and Portugal, where it’s 37 percent. The rest are from elsewhere in Europe. It wasn’t hard to draw applicants: Siemens received 45,000 applications for the current apprentice class. “Of course, it’s only a drop in the ocean, but it’s meant to be a signal for others, too,” says Martin Stöckmann, who oversees training at Siemens in Berlin.
The country’s vocational education system—built on a centuries-old guild tradition that combines state-funded classroom sessions with practical training by companies who pay apprentices modest salaries—offers more than half a million high school graduates a year of hands-on education in hundreds of professions as a respected alternative to a university degree. The system has helped keep youth unemployment at 7.9 percent, the lowest rate in Europe.
Siemens spends about €177 million ($222 million) each year on apprentices (they get paid roughly $1,000 a month), with 1,350 trainees and students passing through its facilities in Berlin. A regular apprentice costs as much as €100,000 for a three-year program, which Siemens hopes fosters a sense of loyalty that will last a lifetime.
A dedicated apprenticeship for foreigners comes with challenges. Most of those chosen speak little German. Siemens has recruited a half-dozen language teachers to shadow the European team, and the company provides insurance, housing, regular flights home, and perks such as a six-week welcome program complete with field trips around town, rock concerts, and brewery visits. Keen to avoid any accusation of being a predator scooping up talent abroad, Siemens insists the students will be sent back to work in factories in their homelands. In all, the cost of schooling a foreign apprentice is 30 percent more than that of an average Siemens trainee. “We are making a big effort, but eventually I believe it will be worth it,” says Stöckmann. “We’ll have better people abroad, and we are strengthening our intercultural capabilities. We are opening up.”