Mercedes-Benz Apprentice Training a Top Priority Since 1890

The Board of Management made it clear that in-house training was a top priority, At the end of 2009, the Group had 9,151 trainees

by  Jim Davis  | 

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Apprenticeship training at the company is almost as old as the automobile itself. When Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler invented the automobile independently of one another in 1888, they created something that was new and revolutionary. When the demand for skilled workers increased sharply at the end of the nineteenth century, however, the obvious solution was for the company to train and nurture its own young recruits.

Founded in 1890, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in Cannstatt trained individual apprentices. Before the First World War they worked in production and in the evenings received tuition in skilled trades. Similarly, employees at Carl Benz brought their sons to the company to learn all about engines: these apprentices were assigned to the foremen of individual work groups, who were then responsible for training and educating the future workforce.

1916: Systematic training

During the First World War demand for trained workers was so intense that in 1916 both DMG in Stuttgart and Benz & Cie. in Mannheim set up their own training departments. In some cases these were specific to individual departments. In 1915, for example, DMG opened an “engine school” in Stuttgart-Wangen in 1915 to order to train technical staff in the maintenance of aeroengines.

There was a change to the systematic training of apprentices, however. Unlike previously, when apprentices underwent individual training, Daimler now set up systematic training in a dedicated apprentice workshop. Since experience and practical examples of such an approach were rare in the metal industry, the company was left to its own devices as to how best to implement the training. Initially in Stuttgart three trainers instructed approximately 60 to 70 apprentices. By 1918 the number had risen to 153 apprentices.

Over a period of four years apprentices were trained in the use of various machines and also in writing and drawing. In the final year of their apprenticeship they became acquainted with various plant departments, before sitting the final apprenticeship examination. Remuneration was graded: in the first year of the apprenticeship the rate was 6 pfennigs per hour worked, rising to 16 pfennigs in the fourth year. These sums were only fractionally higher than in 1903 – when the apprenticeship contract at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft offered 6 pfennigs for every hour worked during the first year and 15 pfennigs in the fourth year of training.

“The first day of the apprenticeship was like a recruit’s first day in the barracks”, recalled one apprentice, who started his apprenticeship in Untertürkheim in 1918. “Roll call, assignment to the correct workplace and washroom, handing out of papers, a lecture on rules of conduct. Even on the first day, one or other of the new recruits would be shown the gentle art of Swabian persuasion. ” The apprentices were not treated with kid gloves. They had to work their way up from the bottom the hard way – even cleaning out the toilets from time to time. And after ten or eleven hours’ work at the plant, the young trainees would spend their evenings in the classroom learning the trades.

In the early years to be accepted for an apprenticeship at Daimler it was sufficient to have “in good health, of sound repute and with a satisfactory school leaving certificate”, as one company publication put it. But since the number of applicants continued to rise, by 1920 DMG had put in place an entrance examination. From this point on, apprentices were required to attend the Städtische Gewerbeschule Cannstatt in addition to their practical training at the plant. Since this proved overly time consuming, however, following negotiations it was decided that in-house apprentices would attend the “Daimler Department of the Gewerbeschule Cannstatt”, which was opened on plant premises. The state-qualified teachers adapted their tuition to the practical work of the plant. Apprentices now saved time and money, since they no longer had to travel to school.

In addition to obliging apprentices to remain loyal to the company throughout the apprenticeship period, the apprenticeship contract also listed a number of rules of conduct. Trainees were required to behave respectfully and with decency outside the plant, for example. They were only allowed to join associations with prior authorisation from their employer, and they were barred absolutely from attending any political events.

The term political here referred in particular to socialist groups or parties of a similar persuasion, for both the government and employers feared unrest if such ideologies were to become widespread. But this posed no significant problem among DMG apprentices: “The apprentice department emerged largely unscathed from the turmoil of the violent political conflict of the post-war years,” recalled one apprentice from the class of 1918. “Apprentices remained good friends despite differences of political opinion.”

Fined for “lying beneath the bench”

Reports and other important information about each apprentice were kept in a personal record book. But there was also a punishment book, in which misdemeanours were noted and for which apprentices were fined 20 pfennigs. Fines were imposed, for example, for offences such as “lying beneath the bench during morning break”, “unauthorised card games at lunchtime”, “smoking in the workshop”, “spending too long in the washroom”, “failure to clean the drill” and “failure to lock the clothes lockers”.

In 1925, nine years after setting up the apprentice workshop in Stuttgart, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft expanded its apprenticeship department with a three-tier vocational school contained within plant premises. On average, this school trained 200 apprentices over four years of apprenticeship. One exception to this were the years 1927 to 1930, when the global depression reduced the annual number of new admissions to 25 or 30 trainees. In 1928 no fewer than 588 apprentices were trained at Daimler-Benz AG, as the company now called itself following the merger between Benz & Cie. and DMG in 1926. This represented 4.8 percent of the entire workforce.

Benz & Cie.: Learning by copying

From March 1916, Benz & Cie. in Mannheim also had an in-house apprentice department equipped with fulltime staff. When wartime production forced the introduction of series production on assembly lines, plant management was led to the view that apprentices were no longer receiving adequate training in basic skills. At this time Benz employed around 80 apprentices, each learning their craft in part by replicating the construction of older vehicles – a training principle that was still in use 50 years later, as confirmed by the head of the Mannheim training department during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the apprentice department in 1966.

Like the rest of the workforce, apprentices at Benz worked a 52-hour week. On two half-days they attended the trade school. During the first year of their apprenticeship they received wages of 4 pfennigs an hour, in the third year 10 pfennigs. During the first 50 years of its existence, the apprentice department in Mannheim trained 2,790 apprentices; of these, almost half (1,246) were still employed by the company in 1966 – nine from the very first class of 1916.

National Socialism: “Education for personal output”

When the National Socialists came to power, apprenticeship training had to be adapted to a new set of guidelines. Along with the trainers from other companies, instructors employed by the automotive manufacturer were brought into line at training camps organised by the German Labour Front (DAF), the trade union for employers and employees founded in 1933.

In addition to the teaching goal of disseminating National Socialist ideology, the educational principles also attached importance to such concepts as “punctuality and thrift, comradeship and personal output”. “The first day of work for new comrades has a ceremonial aspect,” stated the brochure Unser Nachwuchs (“Our future workforce”), published in 1941. “In the presence of all instructors and current apprentices, each new entrant commits himself to allegiance to the plant with a handshake and is formally presented with the Mercedes star as an outward symbol of this allegiance.”

Each apprentice was required to keep a plant logbook, in which he noted the weekly Nazi slogans and the jobs he had been assigned each week. At regular intervals the apprentices were required to produce pieces of work as part of vocational tests in order to demonstrate the progress they had made. One of these tests involved participation in the “Reichsberufswettbewerb” (Reich Vocational Competition), in which apprentices were asked their opinions on ideological issues and demonstrated mastery of the various skills they had been taught.

Another element of vocational training in those days involved gymnastics, swimming and open-air games. These were often accompanied by the Untertürkheim Apprentice Orchestra, thus helping to promote “friendship, education, good spirits and entertainment.” The National Socialists believed these exercises not only developed physical toughness but also prepared youngsters for future military service. Such activities were carried out not just at Untertürkheim; apprentices at the plants in Mannheim, Gaggenau, Sindelfingen and Marienfelde underwent almost identical training.

The individual Daimler-Benz plants were commended on numerous occasions for their exemplary apprentice training in line with Nazi standards. For example, in April 1937 the DAF awarded the Untertürkheim plant the Badge of Merit for Exemplary Vocational Training in recognition of its “development of trainees who were not only skilled but also models of national, socialist and human principles.”

Apprentices help with reconstruction

Reconstruction and the restart of passenger car and commercial vehicle production were the most immediate priorities for Daimler-Benz AG after the end of the Second World War. But the automotive manufacturer also soon began training apprentices again. Nevertheless, it would be a long time before the apprenticeship system recovered fully from the effects of the Second World War. In 1946, for example, only two instructors were available to teach 330 students in eleven vocational classes, since many teachers had been suspended from duties or imprisoned, according to records kept by the Technisches Schulzentrum for the Gottlieb-Daimler-Schulen in Sindelfingen, responsible for apprentices at the Sindelfingen plant.

The new apprentice workshop in Untertürkheim was completed in 1949. As before the war, vocational training took place partly on plant premises, partly at the Wilhelm-Maybach-Schule in Bad Cannstatt. Commercial apprentices were trained at the administrative headquarters in Untertürkheim. The figures made for positive reading: by 1966 the automotive manufacturer had 1,600 apprentices at its training facility. Moreover, since 1954 there had also been intake from abroad – so that by the 50th anniversary of the apprentice workshop in 1966 roughly 10 percent of all apprentices came from countries other than Germany.

From the mid 1960s Daimler-Benz began developing new training methods in Untertürkheim that also attracted critical interest from outside the company. From 1965 to 1969, for example, pilot schemes were carried out for graduated training for skilled fitters. Here, the three-year apprenticeship was divided into a common basic training phase, a general professional training phase and finally specialist training in a chosen trade. This graduated approach proved effective and was retained.

“What Daimler-Benz does for its apprentices is also recognised well beyond our national borders,” wrote the newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten on the occasion of the apprentice workshop’s 50th anniversary on 4 July 1966. “For example, for the last year it has featured a graduated scheme designed to ensure a differentiated, systematic and contemporary approach to vocational training. The first year allows apprentices to decide their professional and educational course and is concluded with a preliminary examination. The second stage trains apprentices as production fitters. Stages three and four take training to an advanced level. This phase involves the professional examination before the Chamber of Industry and Commerce.” The idea behind this graduated training was that each apprentice should receive “training that is tailored in terms of theory and practice to his ability and nature.”

In addition to skilled training, the automotive manufacturer attached importance to the social competence of its apprentices in the post-war period. So from 1956 participation in a two-week socio-pedagogical seminar at the Lämmerbuckel training facility was made obligatory. “Twice a year the apprentices underwent behaviour and personality analysis. The curriculum also embraced appropriate conduct, early morning exercise and general educational skills,” it was stated in a press release.

The plot of land for the training centre that Daimler constructed on the Lämmerbuckel hill immediately after the Second World War dates back to pre-war years. Work on building the two-lane “Lämmerbuckeltunnel” beneath the Wiesensteig on the Swabian Alb was started in autumn 1937; the carriageway was completed in 1942. Shortly afterwards, however, iron gates were mounted at its entrances when the tunnel was converted into an armaments factory for superchargers and aeroengines. The location was ideal, since the factory was virtually invisible from the air and safe from bombardment. A heating facility for production as well as living quarters were constructed above the tunnel. After the Second World War, Daimler-Benz systematically converted Haus Lämmerbuckel into an education and training centre.

In 1968 – by which time Daimler Benz had a total of 3,750 apprentices at company headquarters, eight plants and 34 sales and service outlets throughout the Federal Republic of Germany – Haus Lautenbach was added as a further training facility dedicated to the social education of Daimler-Benz-trainees.

One of the methods employed by Daimler-Benz in the late 1960s to recruit commercial apprentices for training was a project entitled the “virtual company”. For half a day each week young commercial trainees, under the supervision of the relevant instructor, managed a company that existed only on paper. In this way the automotive manufacturer aimed to highlight “the operational context and basic workflows,” giving apprentices the specialist training they needed on the way to becoming future experts.

1970: A new training centre

A new training centre was opened in Untertürkheim in September 1970, and further expanded in 1977/78. In addition to a new apprentice workshop, it included a teaching building, a sports hall, a cafeteria and canteen. The new training facility also accommodated an extension to the Wilhelm-Maybach-Berufsschule, in which apprentices were schooled in the metalworking trades. In the evenings the rooms were used for advanced training and further education events for adults. In 1970 Daimler-Benz trained approximately 4,500 technical and commercial apprentices.

In the 1970s Daimler-Benz also trialled new approaches with a view to further improving apprenticeship training. For example, it took part in the “pilot scheme for first-year vocational basic education in the field of metalworking”. This preliminary year involved a broad-based general training before subsequently leading to job-specific skilled training. Furthermore, for people with learning difficulties and youngsters without a school leaving certificate, in 1975 the company began offering metalwork training courses in Untertürkheim which included the possibility of a conventional apprenticeship. In 1976 this opportunity was taken up by 94 young people. In addition, the manufacturer invested in the Berufskolleg Baden-Württemberg, which established a dual vocational training course for intermediate secondary school leavers. 70 Daimler-Benz trainees took part in 1978.

Training knows no limits

In the 1970s the automotive manufacturer also set itself the goal of improving integration of foreign apprentices in Germany and of doing all it could to promote the German language among trainees with just a limited knowledge. But the traditional German company also played a committed role in the education of young people outside its borders. In 1970, for example, new training centres were set up at general distributors in Iran and the Philippines.

“We have continued and expanded the systematic vocational training of young skilled workers for our foreign general distributors through internship training programmes at our domestic plants and the development of new training facilities abroad,” explained the Board of Management in the annual report of 1974. “A training facility with a training manager from Daimler-Benz AG was opened in Ghana in 1974, for example. Other projects of this type are ready to be implemented.”

The annual report for 1977 picked up the theme again: “Our training work abroad has been further intensified. In developing countries alone, many of which do not yet have systematic vocational training, 1,974 young people received training in 17 training centres.”

Education policy à la Daimler: the “Stuttgart Model”

By the late 1960s and early 1970s the political mood in Germany was one of new educational horizons. Schools providing a general education were rapidly expanded and new schools were built. With education to be made accessible to all, there was a concomitant rise in the number of those staying on at school and those permitted to continue their education to university level. While universities faced the challenge of meeting the training needs of young people, employers feared a skills gap.

So in 1971 Daimler-Benz delivered a proposal to the Ministry of Culture for the State of Baden-Württemberg to increase the attractiveness of training for high-school leavers by means of a kind of university course system. During that year talks were also held on this topic with the Stuttgart-based companies Robert Bosch GmbH and Standard Elektrik Lorenz AG. In cooperation with the Württembergischen Verwaltungs- und Wirtschaftsakademie in Stuttgart and the Chamber of Industry and Commerce for the Mittlerer Neckar region, these three companies developed a new educational initiative for high-school leavers that was officially launched on 15 July 1972 – the “Stuttgart Model”.

Just why the Group saw a fundamental responsibility to help structure the education system was an issue set out clearly by Hanns Martin Schleyer, the member of the Board of Management with responsibility for human resources, at a press conference on the topic of “new approaches to educational work” in 1973: “This is not about holding on to a training system – simply because that is what has been done for decades – or otherwise giving up. It is about making an effective pedagogical contribution to improving vocational education. And in the first instance our educational field is business as a place of learning. A place of learning that is defined by its immediate relationship to practical work, that is defined by its close relationship to competition, to new processes in production and organisation. Learning is a function of operational routine. It is about coming face-to-face with concrete responsibility and the social environment of the manufacturing process.”

The Universities of Cooperative Education opened their doors in Stuttgart und Mannheim on 1 October 1974 to a total of 164 students and 51 training centres in the fields of commerce and engineering; the final qualification offered in each case was a Diploma (BA). By 1981 there were further Universities of Cooperative Education in Villingen-Schwenningen, Heidenheim an der Brenz, Ravensburg, Karlsruhe, Mosbach and Lörrach. The “Law on Universities of Cooperative Education in the State of Baden-Württemberg”, which was passed by the State Parliament in April 1982 and which came into force on 26 May 1982, ended the pilot phase of this innovative training and study model. Since then they have been a regular part of the state’s educational institutions, with a total of 3,768 students in 1982. Today there are around 21,000 students studying at the eight Universities of Cooperative Education in Baden-Württemberg; these are based at eleven different locations and cooperate with around 7,500 businesses.

Daimler – a family tradition

Expansion of the apprentice workshop in 1979 meant there were now facilities to train 1,056 trade apprentices. Statistically, this was equivalent to 5.2 apprentices per 100 employees out of a total workforce of 20,000 in Untertürkheim. Moreover, 45 percent of all trainees taken on in 1979 were the offspring of plant employees: “We can be proud of the fact that we have plant employees working here who already represent the fourth generation,” said a delighted Hans-Wolfgang Hirschbrunn, highlighting what he saw as the continuity and trust of employees during a speech to mark the expansion of the training centre. “In concrete terms, this means we now have apprentices whose great-grandfathers also worked at Daimler.”

Moreover, he was “pleased to be able to announce, that 60 to 70 percent of all apprentices stayed with the company in the long term – as skilled workers, clerical staff and as managers. Two have even become members of our own Board of Management.”

The numbers of trainees was going up not only in Untertürkheim, however. In Germany as a whole there had been a rise of 50 percent in under three years. Around 2,500 young people started a commercial or trade apprenticeship at one of the plants or sales and service outlets operated by the Stuttgart company in 1979. That brought the total number of trainees to approximately 7,000. The numbers also rose significantly at individual plants. At the Bremen plant in 1971, for example, there were 116 trainees, by 1984 the figure was 462. In its report for 1964, the Wörth plant gave the number of trainees, interns and final-year students as 20, then 211 in 1970 and 396 in 1980.

From the mid 1980s, following the multiple acquisitions of companies such as MTU Motoren- und Turbinen-Union, Dornier, AEG and Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, Daimler-Benz became Germany’s largest industrial Group. Accordingly, the number of trainees throughout the Group rose abruptly: “Over 4,000 young people started their vocational training at the Daimler-Benz Group in the last few days,” wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in September 1990. “According to figures supplied by the Group’s administration department, that brings to more than 13,000 the number of apprentices employed by Mercedes, AEG and Deutsche Aerospace; when apprentices working abroad and interns are taken into account, that figure rises to over 17,000 young people. As in previous years 75 percent of boys and girls started vocational training in one of the skilled trades. The others opted for a commercial apprenticeship. Once again in 1990, the large majority of trainees – over 80 percent – were young men, confirmed the Daimler-Benz administration department.”

Nevertheless, by the late 1980s Mercedes-Benz was viewing dwindling applicant numbers with concern – long before the consequences of demographic transformation resulting from the introduction of the contraceptive pill became a topic for public discussion. For from the 1970s this led to an abrupt decline in birthrates: “The training place market in the Federal Republic of Germany has been characterised in recent years by the baby-boom generation. Demand for training places has been exceptionally high, with the number of applicants rising twofold in just a few years by 1985,” stated an information brochure on vocational training at Mercedes-Benz in 1990.

It went on: “Demand is now in serious decline and in 1995 will reach only 50 percent of the figure for 1985. We have also been concerned for some years now about the structure of applications. A steady two thirds of these are for commercial professions. However, current demand for commercial trainees represents roughly only one fifth of all places available. Consequently, the proportion of applicants to places for commercial apprenticeships is around 1:30; for trade apprenticeships the ratio is just 1:4. We must take steps to further improve human resources marketing – particularly for apprenticeships in the skilled trades – and interest a greater number of school leavers in our company’s training programmes.”

Apprentice training reached a milestone in 2004 with the opening in Esslingen-Brühl of a central technical training centre by the then DaimlerChrysler AG. It was part of the nearby Untertürkheim plant and had capacity for around 1,100 trainees, predominantly in the disciplines of production mechanics, industrial mechanics, mechatronics and motor vehicle mechatronics.

Minor differences no obstacle

Traditionally job titles have been associated with specific genders in Germany. For example, in a promotional brochure for training year 1969, alongside advertisements for “technical draftsmen and women” as well as “detail draftswomen”, the only apprenticeship offered explicitly to girls was for a “shorthand office clerk”.

In the 1970s, however, the New Women’s Movement placed previous gender models under scrutiny and in its 1978 publication Können hat Zukunft (“Ability has a future”) Daimler-Benz devoted a chapter to the new generation of female workers: “Qualified girls are in demand – more so now than ever,” ran the company advertisement for female trainees seeking jobs in industrial and office management, as shorthand office clerks, technical draftswomen, graduates in business management (BA) or in certain sales and service outlets as wholesale and export merchants. “But that was not the end of the story. A growing number of girls were also becoming qualified experts in the technical and skilled trades, realising that traditional role allocation by gender was often no longer tenable. So in some of our plants we opened professional metalworking routes for girls, for example as machine fitters or tool and die makers.”

In a press release of 1979, Richard Osswald, the Daimler-Benz Board of Management member responsible for human resources, confirmed that the Group would be investing greater interest in girls. He was quoted as saying: “Of all girls aged between 15 and 18 in Germany, only around 30 percent are in industrial vocational training.” He turned away from “the prejudice of typically male vocations. Daimler-Benz had already been offering girls training in the skilled trades for some time. The experience gained by the Stuttgart automotive manufacturer had been positive in every respect and proved the value of continuing these efforts.”

In the annual report of 1980, in a chapter entitled Training and Further Training, the Daimler-Benz Board of Management explained just why it was so important to invest in female recruitment. “For socio-political reasons, but also in view of the falling numbers of school graduates, we are increasingly addressing new applicant groups in order to secure our supply of junior staff. This includes, for example, an increased number of apprenticeships for girls in technical disciplines.”

Since the launch of Girls Day in Germany in 2001, Daimler has also taken part in the official “Mädchen-Zukunftstag”, aimed at introducing school-age girls to apprenticeships in technical and technology-related jobs. And with considerable success, as one participant from the class of 2008 described, who since September 2009 has been one of two new toolmakers in the first year of training at the Mercedes-Benz Gaggenau plant: “Gradually we are seeing an increasing number of young women here in the technical apprenticeships – and that’s good news. I haven’t regretted my choice for a single day. I often have to explain to my friends what I’m learning here – but they’re interested in what I do too!”

Moreover, the fact that girls are keen to tackle previously male-dominated jobs at Daimler-Benz is not limited solely to Germany. Mercedes-Benz Turkey, for example, is also cooperating with the Turkish organisation CYDD: “The prize-winning training programme “Each girl is a star” is primarily intended to encourage financially disadvantaged young women to find employment in occupations traditionally dominated by men. 850 Turkish women between the ages of 15 and 18 have meanwhile passed through this programme,” stated Daimler’s annual report of 2009.

Shaping a common future

Today Daimler AG offers training in 22 technical and 14 commercial disciplines. The consequences of the sudden drop in the birthrate that came with the introduction of the contraceptive pill are immense: “Demographic transformation presents a challenge to the company,” wrote the Board of Management in its 2009 annu al report. “We have been analysing the effects of demographic developments on workforce capacity and workforce aging at several Group sites, and we have simulated and compared future workforce and capacity requirements. This has enabled us to identify how the workforce will develop over the medium term. We have also been able to evaluate the capacity requirements resulting from this development in terms of the number of employees we will need, the qualifications they must have and an appropriate age structure. We are using these findings to determine which professions should be included in our training portfolio and which policies we need to adopt in relation to continuing education, occupational retraining and recruitment practices.”

The Board of Management also made it clear that in-house training was a top priority. “We view training and further training as indispensable elements to ensure our company’s long-term business success. At the end of 2009, the Group had 9,151 trainees worldwide. In Germany, we took on 2,341 new trainees in the year under review. Trainees who perform well subsequently receive fair job offers; Daimler hired 89% of its trainees in 2009.”

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