What Social Housing Companies Can Learn from Germany about Training and Developing Employees

A year into working with social housing professionals in Germany, I can say there is a lot to be learned.  I want to focus on something that Germany does extremely well which is training and developing young talent to take on the future responsibilities of running and operating different aspects of an industry.  For our sake today, I am going to focus on social housing.  However; Germany applies this systematic approach of real life hands on experience and course work to as many fields as you can think of.  They call it an Ausbildung or an apprenticeship in English.  In a very modern German society, the Ausbildung is a successful throwback of learning on the job that allows for Germany to enjoy one of the lowest unemployment rates for 18-24 year olds in the western world.  Do a google search on German Apprenticeship program and you will find countless articles talking about how the German model could save EU and USA employers in the future.

The Germany Way:

Apprenticeships (Ausbildung) are a big part of Germany’s education system.  Finding a job without some type of apprenticeship in Germany can actually be extremely difficult.  In some instances, the Ausbildung is necessary.  To demonstrate the extent of Ausbildung’s in Germany, the website for the federal government lists 342 different types of trades where a person can complete an Ausbildung.  They range from plumber to oven maintenance to baker, I.T. and banking.  I personally met a young man who did an Ausbildung to be a grocery store manager and is now managing a store of his own in Hannover.  Usually an Ausbildung means a person will work in the profession three to four days a week and spend the other time at a vocational school (Berufsschule).  At my current position, the young people in Ausbildung’s tend to be in the office for three or four weeks straight and then in the school for two weeks.

It is up to the employer to ensure the apprentices are taught everything they need to know.  The skills needed and applicable theory is tightly regulated as one would come to expect in Germany.  The German Chamber of Commerce oversees the licensing or certificate program.  The apprentices receive a special contract until the end of the actual program.  The apprentice cannot be put into regular employment during this period and is also protected from being dismissed without a really good reason.  The time period for the training can last from 24 to 36 months depending on the profession and the skills that need to be learned.  The employer, government and trade unions work together to form this rigorous but beneficial program.   The apprentice is paid during the time and at the end of the program must complete a test and presentation to receive a certificate.  In theory, a young person could be 19 to 22 years old and have a very functional degree as well as two to three years of hands on professional training and experience by the time the program is complete.

Nearly two thirds of young people aged under 22 began an apprenticeship in Germany, and 78% of them completed it, meaning that approximately 51% of all young people under 22 have completed an apprenticeship. One in three companies offered apprenticeships in 2003.  In fact, most industries of any size agreed with the government to take on apprentices.

Social Housing:

After my experience trying to find a job after college, I created an internship program at a housing authority in Tacoma.  I did this because I wanted to give others interested in working in public housing their first opportunity into the industry.  Looking back, the intern program worked and many of the former interns are still working in social housing or moved on to successful careers in other fields.  However, one problem I see now is the intern program did not open up opportunities for everyone.  No, I concentrated only on those at the University.  While this is important, a huge source of potential went untapped because of my lack of forethought.  The community colleges and vocational schools presented a perfect opportunity to bring those interested in office work and maintenance into the industry.

I wanted to help young people out of college find their first job in the housing industry and often transitioned people from the intern program into positions where they were not going to be happy.  It is hard to convince a savvy smart young college graduate to be a property management assistant until another opportunity arises.  While in the long run it is good for their overall career to gain this insight, most young college graduates do not want to do this type of work and want to move into something more exciting like policy, development or community engagement positions.  Pushing the wrong people into these jobs may have only created instability as the fresh graduate would jump to another position as soon as humanly possible.  There is nothing wrong with this but there are plenty of people who might strive for a good position in property management and bring a passion and desire to that job that is more beneficial for both the organization and employee.  That is where a broad array of apprenticeships and intern program could come in handy for a housing authority or social housing company.   Let’s look a little deeper.

Housing Officer/Section 8 and Public Housing Generalist:  I use both of these terms to cover similar positions in the UK including Scotland and Ireland or Australia vs. the USA.  There are around 3300 housing authorities in the U.S.  Most of these are small housing authorities where staff must be able to do a little bit of everything.  Imagine if there was a two year training program where a person could be moved into different positions learning what a public housing property manager does for 6 months to a year and then learning the Section 8 program for the same amount of time.  After two years, this person’s knowledge and skills would almost be indispensable to an organization.  This could be teamed with off-site trainings in vocational school as well as industry trainings.     If he or she could not land a job at the host agency, the combination of experience and education would almost guarantee this person a position with another agency.  This is also an excellent way to develop managers and supervisors for the future.

The same can be said for Housing Officers in the UK. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing a Housing Officer is “To be responsible to the Principal Housing Officer or Housing Manager for the management and maintenance of a number of properties of mixed tenure within a geographical area, in accordance with the organization’s policies and procedures and contributing to the overall successful performance of the Housing Management Team”.  This is another excellent position that could be trained using an apprenticeship program.   In both the examples in the USA and UK, special training organizations like CIH, NAHRO or Nan McKay could play a large role in facilitating these programs.

Maintenance:  Maintenance in general is an area where a skills gap is being seen in the USA, UK and South Africa.  Trades and maintenance is becoming a bigger issue and this is a field where opportunities exist.  If a housing authority took the time to create an apprenticeship program, it could guarantee a pipeline of highly trained employees that are familiar with both industry specific rules, regulations and problems.

I.T:  My current host in Hannover boasts a whopping 5 I.T. apprentices while employing around 3-4 full-time staff that were at one point former apprentices.  I.T. is a growing field and the importance of a robust knowledgeable staff is clear.  Brining on apprentices in I.T. allows a housing authority to build the future of its I.T. department.

Policy: Public housing policy is its own strange field.  Learning public policy at the university does not prepare one for the challenges of what public housing policy is all about.  Learning the rules of the programs, what indicators are important, and where the industry is headed takes time.  Hiring a fresh college grad regardless of what university they come from is almost always a no-go for most housing authorities.  While public housing policy is definitely learnable, it takes time and most housing authorities do not enjoy this luxury when it comes to employing a policy person.  Having a policy intern/apprentice position makes a lot of sense.  This gives a young person the time needed to learn the particulars of the public housing world while also learning the important skills that a strong public policy program can instill in a student.  By the time a student completes a degree, a perfect policy machine can be born!

Its Already Happening, kind of…

There are good internship programs already to be found throughout the USA.  Santa Barbra Housing Authority provides a strong four month program that is available for residents and low income persons in the area a chance to learn housing authority skills.  The Housing Authority of the City of Fort Lauderdale is another excellent example with a two year construction trades apprenticeship program.  The Housing Authority of Philadelphia offers an 8 week pre-apprenticeship program to prepare youth for a career in the trades.  These are all good examples, but the social housing industry can seize the opportunity to learn from the Germans and build a program that can guarantee a solid crop of employees in the future.

Risks:  One constant I always hear about creating intern programs or apprenticeship programs is that the person may take all of the training and leave.  That is true but it is also true of any employee.  At the same time, there might not be a position for the person within an organization at the end of the program which is another risk.  An apprenticeship program should be created with more than a pipeline of talent in mind.  This is an opportunity to be a major contributor in a community to training, educating and improving the life’s of youth and perhaps even residents.  Many housing authorities in the USA attempt to employ residents and low income persons from the city in which they serve.  An apprenticeship program helps to ensure a person receives a strong training program that puts them in a strong place to succeed.  That might be at the housing agency or with another agency but if the net result is a young person or resident being qualified for a meaningful job that is a win.  You must also remember, an apprenticeship should mean the pay is structured to be in line with the skills.  A new apprentice would not be making the same as a journeyman.  No, pay should be enough to help the person make it through the program but should also be reasonable to the housing agency.  This makes it more affordable.  This also leads us into the next risk category, collective bargaining or unions.

It might be a chore to convince some unions that an apprenticeship program or intern program is not taking away from full-time union positions.  It is up to the housing agency to show that this program is a tool to bring potential talent into career fields that would strengthen and enrich the union’s membership in the future.  If an intern program is in policy, it most likely falls outside of the union anyways.  If it is in a union area, you may need to bargain for these intern/apprenticeship programs and decide pay rates throughout the program as skills advance.  This adds a layer but still presents an opportunity for trade unions to become involved in the training and could strengthen the program in general.

No Shortcuts to a Well Trained Employee:  Every country has different strengths and weaknesses.  One thing that is clearly noticeable in Germany is the way the workplace seems to function like clockwork.  Employees are well trained and Germans will not stomach shortcuts when it comes to making sure newcomers to the workplace are knowledgeable.  Throwing someone to the wolves is a phrase we use a lot in the USA.  A new employee starts and is expected to ask if they have a question.  While I am sure this happens in some areas in Germany, it would never happen where an Ausbildung exists.  No, these apprentices are given the correct time to learn a job, the details and the corresponding education that is needed.  We in the social housing industry can take a lesson from the Germans in this sense.  Budget cuts, austerity and being overworked makes it easy to skimp on some areas like training and succession planning.  Adopting a German attitude that this is not justifiable can help us move into the future with a well-trained work-force armed to take on the challenges sure to face our industry.

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