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Das Praktikum vs. the Internship: Lessons From Germany

11/02/2014 12:21 GMT | Updated 12/04/2014 10:59 BST

My first exposure to the phrase "the sick man of Europe" was not in a history lesson on the ailing Ottoman Empire in the run-up to the First World War, but at my first career's counselling session in 2002 or so. The sick man in question? Germany. At the turn of millennium, the country I grew up in was reeling from the combined effects of costly reunification and the fallout from the Dot-com bubble. "Go abroad, to the UK or something", we were urged.

How things have changed. Germany today is the European exemplar to which the UK commentariat regularly doffs its cap. The British right admires its robust and competitive economy and the left applauds its ability to square late capitalism with residues of social democracy. Whether it's rental housing markets, green energy, press incursion and/or freedom, or just football - the Germans get it richtig. I cannot remember any other point in my life where "powerhouse" has been more overused for the country of my birth.

So it seems logical to assume that Germans, with their bustling yet socially equitable economy, don't do unpaid internships either. Unfortunately, it's not quite so simple.

In German, Praktikum and Praktikant are the terms most often designated for internship and intern respectively. However, their origins already belie a very different approach to training white-collar workers. Whereas the word "intern" was fairly alien to the British lexicon until everyone had to figure out what Monica Lewinsky's was doing at the White House (other than not having sexual relations), Praktikum goes back to the 17th century and already then described gaining practical experience of work, commonly for students. With typical foresight and fastidiousness, it seems the Germans take incubating the next generation of workers more seriously and boast a much longer tradition of doing so. Powerhouses don't power themselves unless you plan ahead.

Unlike the UK, in 2003 the Industrial Court of Berlin legally codified Praktika, which in theory means that interns being exploited unfairly by employers in Germany have a legal framework to fall back on. (In Britain, of course, a lot of the controversy surrounding unpaid internships stems from the fact that the term holds no legal significance, effectively presenting itself as a bit of a loophole.) A Praktikum is defined not by the job description - so as to avoid employers tacking it on any entry-level position and not bother with wages, as seems to be the practice in the UK - but by the actual responsibilities and the content of the job. It should only apply to work that serves to enhance education through practical experience and should not supplant actual jobs. Importantly, though, there is no legal requirement for Praktika to be paid.

In practice this constitutes a variety of experiences for young Praktikanten. Last year Jen, a Brit now residing in Berlin, completed a Volontariat, perhaps the most prized of all Praktika, as it entails a living wage, health insurance and many months of work with a high probability of culminating in a full time position. "It's quite old-fashioned, and quite German", she says. "You get a 12 month or an 18 month contract with a company - usually in journalism or publishing, and at the end of it you're either taken on or you're not." Likewise, Thilo an editorial designer at enorm Magazin spoke positively of his experiences as an intern. He completed his first placement at secondary school then entered paid traineeships as a so-called Werkstudent, which paved the way to his current job. Thilo now even pays his own interns. "My friends have had similar experiences", he tells me. "Praktika often end with a full time position."

However, lengthy and numerous unpaid stints are not unheard of in Germany. As Jen points out, most Volontariate are now being cut. Other German twenty-somethings I speak to tell depressingly predictable stories of endless placements, usually in PR, the arts or journalism, where - although the work was stimulating and the colleagues friendly - payment and a full-time position remain elusive. Johanna, a broadcasting and journalism student in Berlin, with more internships than I could count under her belt, bluntly stated that "without interns many businesses - especially in the media and culture sectors - would not survive."

Already in the 90s, German pundits and politicians voiced fears over "Generation Praktikum", an entire demographic forever consigned to languishing in precarious employment. Here yet again the Germans display their signature prescience, identifying the problems faced by post-boomer generations that the Anglosphere has only comparatively recently woken up to. Nevertheless, in spite of being good diagnosticians, there is still widely perceived paralysis within German politics about what to do with all these overeducated, but professionally and intellectually undernourished young people. Sound familiar?

Perhaps this is because the Germans are experiencing the same fundamental shifts to their economy felt everywhere by the transformative powers of the digital technology and the internet. In a new book entitled The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson argues that we are essentially entering a new phase beyond post-industrialisation, where tiny, highly-skilled workforces preside over vastly influential tech firms. (Think the ill-fated Kodak with its hundreds of thousands of employees versus, say, Tumblr with its 231.)

This may sound abstract, but it is having a noticeable effect on young people's lives across the developed world, especially in the areas most often associated with exploitative internships, such as the media, PR and arts. My day job, for instance, is as a freelance researcher on television productions. In a previous age this would have entailed contracts for up to months at a time, where I would have scoured through libraries to fact check and so on. Today, I mainly Google and am hired at short-notice through industry websites for brief contracts. My skills and knowledge are being circumnavigated through ever more convenient digital technology. Who bears the brunt of these costs? Naturally, those trying to break in to the industries convulsing under the pressures to produce free content.

Even the Germans are not immune to that sort of sea change.