BERLIN (AP) — It's lunchtime at Tauro and the restaurant staff are bustling to keep up with orders for marinated pork ribs, spinach-filled crepes and chicken breast with ricotta and pine kernels.
The 800-seat eatery caters to Berlin's affluent Prenzlauer Berg district and when the evening crush starts owner Gerd Spitzer needs all hands on deck — including the apprentices he's relieved to have found after receiving no suitable applicants last year.
Getting them was no easy task. After announcing vacancies through government job centers, he placed ads in papers and websites, but to almost no avail.
"We said we've got to try something else, we'll double the apprentice salaries," he said. "That worked. We've been able to hire 26 young people."
Spitzer, an energetic man in his 50s, is among a growing number of entrepreneurs in Germany resorting to such drastic measures because each year fewer young people sign up for apprenticeships, typically three-year programs for 16-year-olds who want to learn a trade rather than go on to higher education.
Once these programs were regarded as a respectable start into working life for school leavers and a fundamental pillar of Germany's diversified economy. The German system has also been praised abroad because of its emphasis on both theoretical and practical training, with apprentices often taking one week off each month to attend school.
Recent figures showed almost 120,000 vacant apprenticeships in Germany. That's about 14,500 more unfilled places than 2013, the sharpest yearly increase in recent history.
The problem is partly caused by Germany's strong economy and low birth rate, resulting in demand for new apprentices outstripping the number who enter the workforce each year. This has kept Germany's youth unemployment enviably low at a time when other European countries are struggling mightily to create jobs. Some 4 percent of young Germans are without work, compared with 20.8 percent in Spain and a European Union average of 9.8 percent.
Germany's strong labor market has also compounded a long-term trend for school pupils to continue their education at university in the hope of earning a higher salary.
The number of Germans at university topped 2.2 million in 2012, about twice the number 30 years earlier. Meanwhile, the number of people in vocational training dropped to around 1.4 million in 2012 compared with 1.7 million in 1980.
The problem is particularly acute in professions that are physically demanding or seen as low status. These include skilled manufacturing jobs, plumbers, butchers and cooks, where first-year apprentices can receive as little as 480 euros ($620) a month.
Spitzer said his decision to raise the starting salary to 960 euros was met with horror by some business rivals. "They said now he's finally gone mad," said Spitzer, though he claims others are planning to do the same.
The idea also meets with skepticism from the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts, or ZDH, a lobby group that represents about one million mostly small and medium businesses.
"I don't think it's a good thing that employers are competing against each other with presents," said ZDH general-secretary Holger Schwannecke. The concern is that wages could get stuck at a high level, hurting the companies in the long term.
He also dismissed the idea that Germany might try to plug the gap by importing apprentices from other European countries, where unemployment is rampant. Both the lack of language skills and the young age at which apprenticeships start have proved to be a hurdle.
Instead, his organization recently launched a flashy TV advert portraying craftspeople as attractive super-heroes in a bid to raise the profile of apprenticeships among young people who would otherwise go to university.
"This mix of professionals and academics is what makes the German economy strong," Schwannecke told The Associated Press. "We need both."
Like Spitzer, he agrees that the biggest advantage of apprentices is that the skills they acquire are tailored to the needs of employers, which is why unlike in many other European countries it's business that bears most of the costs of apprenticeships.
"Companies know that they can immediately use the apprentices they train," he said.
In Berlin's hip Kreuzberg district, Peter Schoenheit has all but given up on finding apprentices for his bakery, hiring staff on temporary contracts instead.
But despite years of fruitless searching, the 61-year-old thinks little of the idea of raising apprentice salaries, arguing that it takes a while before he knows if someone is up to the job.
"We can't use people who are unable to add up two and two," he said. "I can't hire someone and immediately pay them 100 euros more on the first day."
Schoenheit hasn't given up on finding someone prepared to get up at 3 a.m. every morning to knead dough, but time is running out. In four years he plans to retire and is already looking for a successor for the bakery, which has been at the same site for 120 years.
"It's a really fun job, if you're interested in baking," he said.
Back at Tauro, apprentice waiter Brian Dilek says he applied for three jobs after leaving school and all offered him a place.
"Waiters are always seen as fringe jobs, but we need more and more because of all the tourists coming here," said Dilek. "Most teenagers don't fancy the job because it's hard work. They prefer to sit in a bank, or continue with school."
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