Vocational training instead of no training

The vocational school is closed. The inter-company training shops and universities as well. The company has reduced working hours for several months, and many colleagues work from home. The production halls and offices are temporarily deserted. What happens now to over 100 trainees and participants in the dual study programme who are sitting at home?
The corona pandemic has changed the world, and brought many things to a standstill. What has not changed, however, is the total time of the training: “We still only have three and a half years to complete the training with all its content,” says Andreas Kurth, Head of Training and Studies at EJOT. And what has also not changed is the knowledge that young people have to acquire in their training or studies if they want to pass their final exams in the end. “That is a very crucial point that we have been dealing with for a few months now,” Kurth says to describe the difficult situation. Corona made all tried and tested procedures, processes and ideas obsolete.

​​​​​​​In order to cope with this challenge, not only flexibility is required, but also personal commitment that goes far beyond normal everyday work. The show must go on. “We cannot have non-productive time now for weeks and months,” Kurth makes clear.
The reaction had to be quick and flexible: when schools and training shops were closed during the first lockdown, the team of instructors from the EJOT learning workshop, together with the Cornelsen publishing house, installed the online platform “eCademy” within a few days. Each trainee has their own access and can find learning units there based on the school plans and the curriculum. The learning platform also offers maths training or exam preparations. The educators can assign individual learning packages and give digital homework. In the course of the day, the EJOT learning workshop looks after trainees in small groups in practical periods while complying with Corona requirements, and teaches a group in homeschooling at the same time.

Setting up a learning platform is one thing, the practical implementation with the trainees is a much greater challenge: “It’s a huge undertaking,” emphasises Helmut Zacharias, head of the learning workshop at the Herrenwiese site in Bad Berleburg. The trainees have to find structure in their home-schooling or will be unhappy because they cannot manage it. Simply distributing a few tasks and saying, do these today – that is nowhere near enough.

“We quickly introduced the ‘Early Bird Meeting’, a video conference via Microsoft TEAMS: Digital work starts at 8 a.m. News from the company and information about Corona were translated into more ‘youth-appropriate language’ and passed on. The general situation is discussed as well as daily Corona topics that need to be dealt with. The next morning, an apprentice will give a short presentation on this. It is also about making young people aware of fake news when it comes to Corona. Subject matters from the vocational school are also discussed. “On the days when there was no vocational school, we provided the trainees with learning packages via our learning platform,” says Helmut Zacharias. And at the end of the meeting there is always a short virtual game. “This is important in order to have something human, something fun in the communication,” says Zacharias. That worked out pretty well at first.

However, it quickly became apparent that the Early Bird Meeting was not enough. The intensity of support is far too low: “We are now holding another meeting at the end of the working day and optionally also at lunchtime,” says educator Lukas Brune. And questions can be asked throughout the day.

The discipline improved greatly over the course of the year: camera on, microphone off, everyone is at the computer on time. But there were technical hurdles as well: not every trainee has a computer or laptop at home, and tries in vain to work on the learning platform using his or her smartphone. Reliable internet connections are not available everywhere, or not every PC has a camera or microphone. All communication takes place via private devices. There are also cases where the EJOT trainee in homeschooling has to share a PC with their three siblings at home, and does not have their own room to work on the tasks. “We didn’t think about these factors at first,” says Andreas Kurth. We need to be constantly aware, so that everyone can keep up and the weaker ones don’t fall by the wayside.

Speaking of communication: one insight from the Corona pandemic is the need to involve the trainees on a digital platform within the company. “There are already specific plans for quick implementation,” says Andreas Fey, who is responsible for digitisation projects at EJOT. Here, too, the crisis is an important impulse and accelerator for change," emphasises Fey.

In the meantime, the trainees have recognised the seriousness of the situation. After a year and a half, most of them are about to take part in the first half of the final exam, the result of which contributes to 40 percent of their final grade. No time to relax at home in front of the computer. Personal responsibility has grown. This is also confirmed by Patrick Herms, who is about to complete his training as an IT specialist. For a year now, he has been working in close coordination with his trainers almost exclusively from home and is getting along quite well. And the final exam? “It will be challenging,” says the 23-year-old respectfully. When it comes to home-schooling with his vocational school, he definitely sees room for improvement: “Going to work at 7:30 in the morning at the start of school without a task requires a lot of flexibility,” he says tellingly.

“Despite all the flexibility, digital tools cannot completely replace face-to-face training as we know and appreciate it,” emphasises Andreas Kurth. This also applies to career orientation. Internships have not been possible in the company for a year. This gut feeling, which is important for the applicant and also for the company, this gut feeling is missing: Do I like it there? How are the colleagues? What is it like? But above all, the sense of doing it yourself is missing from an internship. A whole year group is deprived of the possibility of a practice-oriented professional orientation. “We have such an extensive program of internships, career exploration days, potential analyses, Girls Day, voluntary internships during the holidays, training days, trade fairs or training ambassadors in schools – everything has stopped,” Kurth continued. This cannot be replaced with newspaper advertisements and social media channels. “This ‘Come to us and we will offer you a great programme for three weeks, take you by the hand and explain to you with passion what we do here’, we miss that as well.”
The students in the dual study programme also learn to deal with the new situation. “A high level of flexibility, greater independence and definitely also advantages,” as mechanical engineering student Moritz Kuhly sums it up. Lectures can be accessed at any time on the Internet. There is no need to drive to university, which saves time. It becomes confusing, of course, when every professor and lecturer provides their study documents on a different platform. “I made myself an Excel spreadsheet, so as not to lose track of everything.” And online exams are tough sometimes: 60 tasks in 60 minutes and by no means just multiple-choice questions. “On those days the clock runs mercilessly,” laughs Kuhly. The last time he was at university was in September. No first semester party, no beer in the pub with fellow students. We all miss it.