Options for flexibilisation within the scope of the BBiG and its implementation

Monika Hackel

The wish for a more flexible structuring of vocational education and training is particularly expressed within the context of dynamic innovation and transformation processes in Germany. One thing which is frequently overlooked is the fact that the German vocational training act (BBiG) already offers options for flexibilisation in relation to the structures and contents of training occupations, with regard to implementation in terms of place and time, and in respect of specific groups of persons. These options are described in the present article. Nevertheless, it is revealed that some of them are used only hesitantly. The questions which therefore arise are whether there is sufficient awareness of these options, whether further options are required and which prerequisites these would need to fulfil.

Flexibility of structure and content

The purpose of structural concepts in training (cf. Bretschneider/Schwarz 2015) is to permit internal differentiation within training occupations. They have two essential functions. The number of training occupations remains manageable, and account can also be taken of the diverse nature of companies offering training. This particularly serves the interests of cooperation between vocational school learning and company-based training. A manageable number of training programmes makes it easier for vocational schools to plan and organise their classes. Nevertheless, companies have quite definitive needs with regard to practical training. The opportunities open to them are also very specific. Training regulations constitute minimum requirements. This means that training regulations must be designed in a way which will enable companies to cover these requirements. For this reason, structural concepts such as areas of deployment, specialisms and elective qualifications are developed with the aim of according due consideration to the diversity of the situations companies find themselves in at the commencement of training. Codified additional qualifications are also available in order to high-ability trainees and to impart innovative competencies which are not, however, required across the board.

Within the scope of training regulations, there is also further flexibility with regard to the organisation of training. To this end, a so-called flexibility clause is included in the training regulations (in more recent regulations this is usually set out at the beginning in a paragraph relating to “Object of the vocational education and training and general training plan”): “Organisation of vocational education and training which deviates from that stipulated in the general training plan is permitted if and to the extent that specific practical company characteristics or reasons relating to the person of the trainee necessitate such a deviation.” This makes it clear that the skills, knowledge and competencies to be imparted are obligatory, but also allows them to be taught in a different order. This is a pragmatic option in terms of flexibility, and companies frequently like to avail themselves of it. In practice, the organisation of training needs to pay heed to company work orders. In a current BIBB project, for example, 82 percent of the companies surveyed (n = 306) reported that they sometimes teach contents from the specialisms in the first year of training instead of during the final third of the programme as scheduled (cf. Schreiber et al., under preparation).

Neither does the text of the training regulations contain any detailed indications regarding the specific characteristics of the technologies to be taught. The objective of these technologically neutral formulations is to create leeway for innovations without necessitating a direct adaptation of the training regulations. Preliminary investigations conducted by BIBB (cf. e.g. Schwarz et al. 2016) show that a longer updating cycle does not therefore constitute a serious problem, even in the case of training occupations which are very technologically dynamic. Updating practice has not thus far made any use of the possibility of staged training (§5 Paragraph 2 Clause 1 BBiG), which allows for basic and specialist training to be delivered in an interrelated and cumulative way. § 5 Paragraph 2 Clause 2 a BBiG was introduced as part of the most recent reform of the Act in 2020. The effect of this provision is to permit recognition of a two-year training qualification if a trainee fails the final examination of a three (and a half) year programme which follows on from a two-year course. This so-called recourse option has proven to be more beneficial to a person’s employment biography than the status of an unskilled worker (cf. e.g. Röttger/Weber/Weber 2020). However, there has not yet been much demand for two-year occupations on the part of the social partners. In areas where they have become established (such as commerce and logistics, cf. BIBB 2022, p. 115), trainees are frequently offered a follow-up contract for a three-year training occupation upon successful completion of the final examination of the two-year programme. Around a fifth of all trainees qualifying in two-year occupations seized this opportunity in 2020 (ibid.). The trade unions have hitherto only involved themselves in the development of two-year occupations in circumstances where the labour market usability of the two-year occupation was evident and if permeability was in place in respect of continuing training into a three-year occupation. One particular point of dissent between the social partners is the trade unions’ demand that this permeability should be formulated in terms of a legal right of the trainees.

Flexibility in the time structure

The BBiG offers flexible options with regard to the structure of the period of training.

An extension of the training period pursuant to § 8 BBiG is possible if certain prerequisites are met. The most common reasons for an extension are non-achievement of the performance goal of the vocational school class, significant periods of absence (which are not the fault of the trainee, e.g. as a result of illness) and the need for trainees to look after their own children or to act as carers for family members. Application for an extension may also be made if trainees are suffering from a physical, mental or psychological disability which prevents achievement of the training objective within the agreed time or if the training exhibits discernible serious deficiencies. More systematic use could be made of these flexibilisation options than was the case in the past. This would facilitate more inclusive training practice.

Shortening of training is also permitted in accordance with § 8 BBiG. Application for a shortening of the period of training may be made at the time when the training contract is concluded or during the early stages of the programme if particular prior knowledge and experiences are in place. The period of training may be shortened by up to six months if a trainee has gained a specialised upper secondary school entrance qualification or has completed relevant higher education learning (30 ECTS). Training may be abbreviated by up to twelve months for those in possession of a university of applied sciences entrance qualification or a general higher education entrance qualification and for trainees who have already completed a VET programme. Older trainees also have the opportunity of shorter training, as do persons who have already completed basic vocational training or who possess relevant occupational experience. In 2020, this option was used in 19.2 percent of all training contracts concluded (cf. BIBB 2022, p. 99).

Early admission to the final examination is possible upon application for high-ability trainees pursuant to § 45 Paragraph 1 BBiG. The admission criterion in this case is an average mark of less than 2.49 in all subjects or learning fields which are of relevance to the examination. The company providing training must issue an appropriate certificate. The record of training (report book) needs to be complete and properly kept, and the candidate is also required to have passed the intermediate examination or Part 1 of the final examination. A minimum period of training applies in each case depending on the duration of the training occupation in question.

Since the modernisation of the BBiG in 2020, part-time training pursuant to § 7a BBiG has been a flexibility option for all trainees rather than any longer being confined to certain groups of persons (cf. Baldus 2020). According to BIBB (2022, p. 99), this option was deployed in only 0.4 percent of all newly concluded training contracts in 2020. The national total was a mere 2,016 newly concluded contracts. In light of the impending shortage of skilled workers, it would be desirable for the new statutory regulation to lead to greater take-up of this option. The general conditions which could produce a conducive effect in this respect are a broader information basis, guidance for trainees and companies, an improvement in childcare facilities, greater flexibility in the school-based element of dual VET and networking between regional stakeholders.

Flexibility for specific groups of persons

The BBiG also sets out further flexibility options with regard to specific groups such as people with learning difficulties, the socially disadvantaged, disabled persons and adults entering vocational training. The following options should be distinguished.

Training modules (§ 69 BBiG) for people with learning difficulties and for socially disadvantaged persons provide training preparation. In terms of content, they are aligned to current dual training occupations. The target group is thus able to gain initial occupational experiences within a supported environment, and this facilitates their subsequent transition to training.

So-called professional practitioner regulations (§ 66 BBiG) encompass special training provisions drawn up by the competent bodies for disabled persons who cannot embark upon training in a recognised training occupation because of the nature and severity of their disability. By the very nature of their definition, these only apply to a small number of disabled persons. The primary inclusion goal is to provide recognised training by making use of further instruments (such as compensation for disadvantage as governed by § 65 BBiG). Unsurprisingly, only 6,969 newly concluded training contracts in accordance with the regulations stipulated in § 66 BBiG were reported in 2021. This figure represents a proportion of a mere 1.5 percent (cf. BIBB 2022, p. 53).

Retraining (§ 58 - § 63 BBiG) and external admissions to the final examination (§ 45 Paragraph 2 BBiG) are geared towards older persons who wish to acquire a recognised training qualification. Retraining programmes prepare those who have already acquired a previous vocational qualification to take on new occupational tasks. The measures funded are shorter than the normal duration of training because of the prior occupational experiences which have been gained. External admission is open to all persons able to demonstrate relevant occupational experience. The proviso is that this occupational experience must be at least one and a half times longer than the period of training. Account is also taken of periods of training in other relevant occupations, of occupational experience acquired abroad, and of experience gained in the army. Chamber organisations offer preparatory courses in this area. External admissions on the basis of partial qualifications are also possible within the scope of the qualifications-oriented funding provided by the Federal Employment Agency (BA). Between five and seven partial qualifications are usually developed depending on the respective underlying training occupation. In their totality, these partial qualifications then fully map the training occupation in question. Low-skilled workers or job seekers would be able to complete several partial qualifications and thus be permitted to progress to the final examination in the recognised training occupation conducted by the competent body. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is presently funding projects with a view to improving the quality of partial qualifications and to evaluating the experiences of those who complete such qualifications. No systematic recording has yet taken place of the number of people who actually go on to achieve a training qualification via this route. In 2019, the Federal Employment Agency  provided support to 75,000 persons as part of its qualifications-oriented funding programme. However, only 15,431 received assistance with individual partial qualifications (cf. German Federal Government 2021). Many participants complete only one partial qualification each.

Flexibility of the training venue

The BBiG provides for various flexibility options with regard to place of training. The aims are to enable more companies to offer training and to provide a means via which particular company requirements can be taken into consideration.

Cooperative training (§ 10 Paragraph 5 BBiG) gives highly specialised companies the opportunity to deliver high quality training in conjunction with partners. They are released from the burden of having to provide training in some areas and are able to obtain help with organisation. Cooperative training offers further benefits too (cf. BMBF 2021). It allows full use to be made of existing technical facilities and facilitates entry into the provision of training by companies which have little or no experience. Cooperative training can be contractually regulated in several ways – in collaboration with a partner company, within a consortium, via commissioned training or within the scope of a training association. Programmes instigated by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) have provided constant financial support for cooperative training, one recent case in point being during the coronavirus pandemic in 2021/2022.

Inter-company training centres are also funded at a federal level. § 5 Paragraph 2 Clause 6 BBiG states: “Parts of vocational education and training may take place at suitable institutions outside the training venue if and to the extent that the nature of the vocational education and training requires this (inter-company vocational education and training).” This is also an option which provides particular training support to SMEs. In some cases, the contents to be imparted are already stipulated in binding form in the training regulations. Especially within the context of digitalisation, the funding of inter-company training provides useful starting points for adequately addressing the digital shift within training irrespective of company size and field of operation.

Training at extra-company training centres (§ 2 Paragraph 1 Clause 3 BBiG) is a specific instrument for opening up training opportunities for disadvantaged young people who are unable to secure a company-based training place. This form of VET is publicly financed and aimed at young people who are at a disadvantage on the market, socially disadvantaged, with learning difficulties or a disability. 16,512 training contracts of this type were concluded nationwide in 2021 (cf. BIBB 2022, p. 48). (Extra-company) training which is primarily publicly financed is conducted in accordance with German Social Security Code (SGB) II and III and within the scope of programmes instigated by the Federal Government and the federal states.

Pursuant to § 2 Paragraph 3 BBiG, up to a quarter of training may take place abroad if this is conducive to the training objective. Trainees are provided with an opportunity to gain occupationally specific foreign experiences at subsidiaries or with business partners of the company providing training. They can therefore obtain knowledge of the global correlations of their company and acquire international competencies whilst still in training. Such activities are funded via established mechanisms such as Erasmus+ and the Training Worldwide programme, both of which were recording constant growth prior to the pandemic. The objective now must be to get back on track in this regard. In 2020, the number of approved stays abroad declined by about twelve percent compared to the previous year as a result of the pandemic and in the wake of Brexit.

Nevertheless, they remained above the levels recorded for the year 2018 (cf. BIBB 2021, p. 472). In 2021, the restraints placed on mobility due to the pandemic led to a sharp reduction in the figures. However, as the crisis recedes, a rapid recovery in these activities can once again be observed (cf. BIBB 2022, p. 465). This indicates the high level of significance attached to this provision.

General conditions and use of flexibilisation options

The final aim is to address the question of what stands in the way of the practical implementation of the multifarious flexibilisation options. The localisation of the dual system between the economic and education systems is one point which particularly needs to be stated in this regard. Unlike in general education programmes, both the learning venues and their attendant restrictions need to be examined when considering dual training. Broader application of part-time training and systematic extension of training for lower ability trainees frequently fail because of a lack of matching back-up vocational school provision. Companies often make only informal use of innovative modular structural concepts such as codified additional qualifications (cf. Kaufmann/Winkler/Zinke 2022). In such cases, official recognition of learning achievements via examination does not take place.

The reflections presented above on many of the opportunities for flexibilisation set out in the BBiG also allow requirements for the creation of further options to be derived. As described, manageability for training practice is a key criterion, especially in the German system.
The great benefit of dual training is its practical relevance. If this is not to be thwarted, training in real work and business processes must not be pre-structured in too much detail and the time structure must not be too tightly defined. Innovative companies need leeway in order to incorporate operationally specific improvements into training. Equally, it should be possible for traditional companies and SMEs to meet the minimum requirements. As seen above, vocational education and training in Germany is crucially dependent upon educational policy consent between the social partners. Alongside this, flexibilisation options must prove their worth within the areas of conflict that exist between regional prerequisites, the practical requirements of vocational schools and individual learning needs. Whereas operationally specific flexibility is important to companies, the effectiveness of vocational schools is reliant on standardisation and on a variance between training programmes that is as manageable as possible. This is an area in which, for example, new national digital school-based training concepts could be piloted. Discussion could also take place on the idea of completing some parts of training at home, an option which was tried out during the pandemic and which does not yet have any foundation in law. Flexibilisation options such as extension of the duration of training or part-time training must be exploited to a greater extent, publicised and receive local support. Other options are, quite rightly, directed towards a narrowly defined group of persons.

When further flexibilisation options are discussed and assessed, system correlations must always inform the evaluation in a constructively critical manner and in a way which benefits learners.


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(All links: status 20/07/2022)

Dr. Monika Hackel
Head of Department at BIBB


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 3/2022): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin