A good day at work today. Everything ran smoothly and we also spent an hour listening to a beekeeper tell us about the honey he would be producing for us this summer. To be accurate, he won’t actually be producing any honey but his 50,000 bees will be doing it for him. Through the company we are sponsoring a local beekeeper, which is why he came to visit.
He will be setting up a “Volk” (colony) next to the rapeseed fields just down the road. If all goes well, we will get two lots of honey from them this summer. I learned a lot about bees but one fact, in particular, got me thinking. Our beekeeper explained that a bee’s egg is called a “Stift” in German. “Stift” is also used to describe a trainee or an apprentice (it’s a little old-fashioned but when I first came here in 1991 we all called the apprentice “Stift”). The beekeeper reckoned that this name came from the bee meaning. A Stift, however, is also a pencil or a wooden pin used in joinery – and others claim that these meanings are associated with the slang for apprentice. I don’t suppose it matters.
The trainee, or apprentice, system is often held up as a good example of how to educate and give your workforce relevant training. And in Germany they take the apprentice programmes very seriously. They have a programme for everything. You can, for example, train as an “Einzelhandelskaufmann” … shop assistant. When I first heard this I couldn’t believe it. As far as I knew from England in the 80s there were wasn’t much to being a shop assistant. If you worked in a clothes shop you needed to able to spend the entire working day ignoring people while loud music was playing. Or if you were in a supermarket you had to learn how to look bored. I used to make jokes about how unnecessary a training programme for shop assistants was… but now that I have seen the apprentice system working, I am less cynical.
We had an apprentice programme at the company I used to work for. We used to take on 16 year old school-leavers and they would spend 2 years qualifying as “Bürokaufleute” which means something like “office worker” but without sounding quite so dreary. The state subsidised their salaries and they would spend some time in the company and some at school. There was a certain training programme that we had to ensure was properly implemented, for example we couldn’t just let the apprentices make coffee for us all day. They had to be rotated through various departments. We also had to designate employees who became qualfied trainers.
It worked really well for us. The evil capitalist in me saw it as a great chance for some cheap labour, but it is a great way for young people to get used to working life too. Nearly all of the apprentices we trained stayed on – and this helped us build a company from just 8 people to over 200 hundred in a decade or so. I would say that probably 50% of the employees there today were home-grown. I am now a convert – I think it’s a great system. The state says “we will subsidise your young employees but only if you train them properly and give them a bit of time off to go to school”.
My own, new company, is too small to train at the moment but hopefully by this time next year we will be thinking about taking on our first apprentice.