Learning by doing

Siemens has one of Germany’s first in-plant vocational schools 

Siemens & Halske hired its first apprentice in 1870, at its plant on Markgrafenstrasse in Berlin. But that by no means went together with the start of any form of systematic training. Until the 1890s, only a few Siemens workers’ sons had the privilege of attending a “plant school” that differed significantly from a traditional craft-focused apprenticeship. Find out more about how the apprenticeship system evolved at Siemens.

Schooling by the company – Not an option, at first

For decades, Werner von Siemens saw no need to actually teach apprentices. In 1885 he could still say:

I don’t think it appropriate for large factories to be involved in principle with the actual training of apprentices. For that reason, I […] have prohibited it at my factory.
Werner von Siemens, 1885

And the company founder was not alone in his opinion. Many company owners expected little quality from whatever worker training might be provided in a large factory that focused on series production and piecework rates. Parents with an interest in such things would be better advised to place their sons in apprenticeships “at small mechanics’ workshops,” where they could be “trained faster, and as a rule better as well.” But that attitude would soon change.

Industrial operations replace workshops – The birth of in-house training of skilled workers

By the end of the 19th century, Berlin had evolved into an “electropolis.” By 1902, Siemens had more than 11,000 employees here. And as the company grew, so did the need for skilled workers – so the company’s directors finally set aside their reservations about in-house training for apprentices. A further reason was that conventional apprenticeships were increasingly inadequate to meet modern industry’s practical needs.

 

Early in the 1890s, Siemens & Halske began investing in training its own rising generation of skilled workers. In 1891 the Berlin plants set up experimental teaching workshops where up to ten apprentices were trained outside the production process proper. Some years later, this practically-based training was supplemented with an in-house course of specialized theoretical training, and the in-house school of Siemens & Halske opened to 77 apprentices in four classes on November 1, 1906. That makes this company school – which still exists today – one of the oldest vocational schools in Germany.

 

By 1910, the number of students had tripled, and the number of classes had doubled.  Scarcely two years later, practical training for precision mechanics was consolidated at a central apprentices’ workshop. 

A mandatory course of studies for apprentices – Four years at Siemens’ in-plant school

The Prussian government granted the training facility the full status of a state vocational school. But that meant attending the Siemens in-plant school was mandatory for all Siemens & Halske apprentices. Accordingly, by 1920 the number of students had risen to 400. The curriculum included courses in German, arithmetic, civics, more advanced mathematics, drawing and technology. 

To keep training as close as possible to actual practice, until the 1920s the school’s teachers were recruited from among Siemens engineers, designers and commercial clerks, who taught as a sideline. Only gradually did the teaching staff become more professional, when a few of the part-timers were given leaves of absence to earn an additional teaching qualification at Berlin’s institute for vocational school teachers. By around 1930, the school had eight full-time teachers. 

 

Eight years after Siemens & Halske, Siemens-Schuckertwerke set up its own in-plant school, although it did not have state recognition as an alternative educational institution. Both schools were combined in the summer of 1932. The organizational consolidation brought the total number of students to more than 1,000.

 

Classes were taught for eight hours a week, plus one hour of athletics. Along with the eight full-time teachers (two of them for athletics), the teaching staff also included several members who were teaching as a sideline to their regular jobs. 

 

Training for the next generation continued uninterrupted during World War II. In 1943 the school had 13 full-time teachers and 18 instructors teaching as a sideline. In May 1944 it had 1,078 vocational apprentices training to be toolmakers, mechanics, machinists, lathe operators, high-voltage installers, telecommunications installers, cable installers, carpenters, technical draftsmen, and more. The school did not suspend operations until March 31, 1945, just a few weeks before the war ended. By that time, a large portion of the school’s facilities and equipment had been destroyed.

A revival of the company vocational school – With government recognition 

Practical training for apprentices at the training workshop resumed by early August 1945. But because the war and the postwar environment had left far fewer apprentices – at the end of August, Siemens & Halske had about 80 apprentices, and Siemens-Schuckertwerke had about 60 – the company decided against reestablishing a formal in-plant vocational school. So theoretical training was farmed out to such institutions as the Spandau State Vocational School that had been set up on Berlin’s nearby Eiswerder Island; it opened up two special classes for Siemens apprentices on October 1, 1945.

 

 

Yet the number of apprentices continued to grow. What’s more, the theoretical training at the state vocational schools did not meet the company’s needs or expectations. So in October 1947 the company began offering its own additional training courses, and started urging the authorities to allow it to establish an in-plant vocational school. Nevertheless, it would take years before that particular effort met with success.     

 

On April 1, 1952, a new in-plant school, the Werner-von-Siemens-Werkberufsschule (WBS), provisionally opened its doors, awaiting official approval from the Public Education Department of Berlin’s Senate – which finally came through on July 14. At that point the school had a student body of nearly 300 incipient precision mechanics, tool makers, machinists, high-voltage installers, electrical mechanics, electric installers, and coil winders, taught by four full-time teachers in 12 classes. All the same, trainees in special vocations like carpentry, mold making and glass blowing still had to attend the Municipal Vocational Schools.

In 1967, this “alternative” school was fully accredited as a private school of the State of Berlin, which now covers two-thirds of the school’s budget.

 

In the spring of 2019, about 700 students were attending the Werner-von-Siemens-Werkberufsschule, now an integral part of Siemens Professional Education (SPE) in Berlin. The trainees are learning electronic, mechanical, mechatronic and commercial occupations. To ensure that these upcoming employees are well prepared for the needs of today’s complex job world, for many years now the school has taken an integrated, holistic approach – with close coordination between theory classes and on-the-job practice. The students not only earn professional and methodological qualifications by working on real projects integrated into actual processes, but they also learn and strengthen personal and social skills. SPE Berlin, which also offers courses of study leading to the degrees of Bachelor of Engineering and Bachelor of Arts, is Siemens’ largest training facility anywhere in the world.

Sabine Dittler | Dr. Claudia Salchow