If you ask most people what the most critical threats are to our global society, you’ll get a variety of answers, from the way we treat the environment, to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, to a diminished emphasis on traditional values, to too much -- or not enough -- religion, to our obsession with -- or ignorance of -- science. The list goes on and on, and is different for just about everyone. Youth unemployment needs to be on that list.

I’m Irish and have seen, firsthand in my home country, the long-term, ill effects of what youth unemployment can cause. But, working for The Coca-Cola Company, I have also had the pleasure of seeing programs that work in addressing youth unemployment.

In my humble opinion, Germany is leading the way. The German advantage I speak of is their workforce. Not the specific workers, but the way the German workforce is constructed. You see, Germany has found a way to combat the scourge of youth unemployment. The unemployment rate for Germany’s youth (ages 20-24) is under 8 percent, half of what it is in the United States and a third of the rate across the rest of the European Union. I’ll address what Germany does that the rest of do not. First let me provide a bit of personal history and perspective.

My first job came at the age of 20. I was training to be an accountant. Getting into a training program wasn’t that hard for someone like me. With an advanced degree from a university, I had many doors opened for me. But times have changed . We have reached a point in society where even a college degree is not enough to ensure employment. Just ask the many graduates worldwide of the class of 2014 who recently earned their degree, but have no job.

Youth unemployment is something I think about often because our young people are the most impressionable elements of society. If they work hard to get a degree but cannot get a job, it can cause deep personal scarring. Our youth are supposed to look forward to the future with optimism and hope, wanting to make the world a better place. Instead, we are creating a generation of jaded youth, worried about where their next paycheck will come from while desperately trying to pay off the tremendous loans they took on to get their education.

High youth unemployment is also a key factor in emigration, forcing new members of the workforce to move to different places in search of a job. The demise of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland has caused a flood of emigration in recent years. An estimated 400,000 people have left Ireland since the economic downturn of 2008, a huge figure for a nation with a population of 4.5 million. And many of the emigrants have been well-educated youth in search of better opportunities in other countries.    

So, what does Germany do to ensure their youth are well-employed? The biggest single factor is the German apprenticeship system. In Ireland and many other parts of the world, we have a culture today where we think that unless you get a college degree, you cannot be successful. Everyone wants their children to be doctors or lawyers. But, in Germany it is perfectly acceptable for a young person to enter into a skilled apprenticeship and find a career through that path. Not only is it good for the German youth who develop valuable skills, it gives a major boost to the German manufacturing sector and is a major reason why German industry is among the most productive and successful in the world. The rest of us could take a valuable lesson from Germany’s example.

I have tried to apply these lessons to employment programs within the Coca-Cola Bottling Investments Group (BIG), which I lead. In all of our bottling operations, we make sure to provide valuable entry-level training to our young employees. They need to gain marketable skills while they are our employees, both so they can move up through the ranks but also to help them no matter where they end up working.

Germany offers a great example of why investments in apprenticeship are more important than ever. Germany is a nation with a rapidly aging workforce, making it a challenge to recruit qualified young people. As a consequence, we are making huge investments in apprenticeship. These investments certainly help us but – I believe – also support the economy. A characteristic of the German apprenticeship program is the so-called “Dual Training.” It allows young talent to learn a profession in operations while continuing to get a somewhat traditional academic education at the same time.

Currently, our German bottler, CCE AG, employs more than 400 apprentices in 14 different jobs coached by specially educated training supervisors. We hire more than 100 new apprentices each year. It is very important for us that they do more than just train for a skilled profession. We also want them to learn about the Coca-Cola business. So, the apprenticeship program allows them to work in different functions throughout the business unit as well as be assigned to special projects.

germany BIG 604 2
Coke's German bottler, CCE AG, employs more than 400 apprentices in 14 roles coached by specially educated training supervisors.

And it’s not just about us teaching them. Each year, we have apprenticeship innovation days where our young people meet members of senior management to discuss business challenges and how we can improve the program. We recognize the best talent in the program each year by inviting them to a special event to be recognized for their high performance.

Irial Finan
Irial Finan

Approximately, 40 percent of our apprentices are offered a long-term job with CCE AG after they have successfully finished their training. The other program participants are offered a one-year job, during which time they can continue to learn and prove themselves.  Nearly 70 percent of our latest apprenticeship class continues to remain with our business.  This shows the quality of our training and the appeal of working for Coke.  

Our German program may not work in every market, and I’m not suggesting that what Coca-Cola does there or in other countries will solve the global problem of youth unemployment. But, all companies worldwide need to begin looking at training and development opportunities differently to ensure today’s youth gain skills and hope for a brighter future. 

Irial Finan is executive vice president, The Coca-Cola Company, and president of Bottling Investments and Supply Chain.