New opportunities or reinforced disadvantages? Variation in returns to low-achieving school leavers' participation in pre-vocational training programmes (NORD 1)

Prof. Dr. Heike Solga, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)

Research staff:
Dr. Anne Christine Holtmann, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)
Dr. Laura Menze, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)
Dr. Martin Ehlert, Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)

Project summary:

Germany is famous for its apprenticeship system which integrates those without a university degree into skilled jobs. However, the German apprenticeship market is rather competitive, and especially low-achieving school leavers have difficulties in gaining access to apprenticeship positions. In our DFG-project NORD I, we asked:

1. Why do low-achieving school leavers face difficulties in entering apprenticeships?

2. Do prevocational programs (short: pre-voc programs) provide a ‘second chance’ to enter apprenticeships or rather put young people on hold and hide youth unemployment?

We use data from the German National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) following a cohort of 9th graders in their school-to-work transitions. Low-achieving school leavers are defined as those who left regular schools and special needs schools for learning disabilities without a school certificate or with only a lower secondary school certificate.

Only half of these low-achieving school leavers enter a regular apprenticeship position straight after school. We found that low-achieving school leavers mostly do not lack aspirations or vocational orientation, but many of them don’t apply directly after leaving school—regardless of their skills. Employers recruit students based on school certificates, whereas cognitive and social skills and personality traits beyond certificates don’t seem to influence their recruitment decisions.

Taking into account selection processes in school-to-work transitions, we show that pre-voc programs improve low-achieving school leavers’ chances to enter an apprenticeship. In this respect, pre-voc programs open up new opportunities, especially for young people with particularly poor training prospects directly after school. Both those who attained a higher-level school certificate and those who spent time in firms during pre-voc programmes increased their opportunities to access apprenticeships afterwards. However, only those who attained a higher-level school certificate are able to enter higher-status training occupations afterwards.

While we focused on access to apprenticeship in the first project (NORD 1), our extension project NORD 2 investigates the risk of dropping out of these apprenticeship positions.

Also see our WZB project website.



Holtmann, Anne Christine/Menze, Laura/Solga, Heike/Ehlert, Martin (2020): "Improving Formal Qualifications or Firm Linkages. What Supports Successful School-to-Work Transitions among Low-Achieving School Leavers in Germany?". In: European Sociological Review, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp. 218–237, online:

Holtmann, Anne Christine/Menze, Laura/Solga, Heike (2019): "Schulabgänger und –abgängerinnen mit maximal Hauptschulabschluss". In: Gudrun Quenzel/Klaus Hurrelmann (Hg.): Handbuch Bildungsarmut. Wiesbaden: Springer VS Verlag, S. 365-388.

Menze, Laura/Holtmann, Anne Christine (2019): "Was können Schulabgängerinnen und Schulabgänger ohne Mittleren Schulabschluss aus Übergangsmaßnahmen mitnehmen? Entwicklungen und Übergangschancen in Ausbildung". In: Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft, Jg. 22, H. 3, S. 509-533.

Ehlert, Martin/Holtmann, Anne Christine/Menze, Laura/Solga, Heike (2018): "Besser als ihr Ruf. Übergangsmaßnahmen erhöhen Ausbildungschancen bei leistungsschwachen Jugendlichen". In: WZB-Mitteilungen, H. 162, S. 41-43.

Holtmann, Anne Christine/Menze, Laura/Solga, Heike (2018): "Mangelt es wirklich an der 'Ausbildungsreife'? Die Bedeutung von Handlungsressourcen und Gelegenheitsstrukturen für die Ausbildungschancen von leistungsschwachen Jugendlichen". In: Nele McElvany/Wilfried Bos/Heinz Günter Holtappels/Johannes Hasselhorn/Annika Ohle-Peters (Hg.): Bedingungen erfolgreicher Bildungsverläufe in gesellschaftlicher Heterogenität. Dortmunder Symposium der Empirischen Bildungsforschung, Bd. 3. Münster: Waxmann, S. 9-33.

Holtmann, Anne Christine/Menze, Laura/Solga, Heike (2018): Unentdeckte Kompetenzen. Jugendliche ohne Mittleren Schulabschluss finden schwer einen Ausbildungsplatz. WZBrief Bildung 36/September 2018. Berlin: WZB.

Holtmann, Anne Christine/Menze, Laura/Solga, Heike (2017): "Persistent Disadvantages or New Opportunities? The Role of Agency and Structural Constraints for Low-Achieving Adolescents’ School-to-Work Transitions". In: Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 46, No. 10, Special Issue "Social Inequality, Life Course Transitions, and Adolescent Development", edited by Tina Malti/Annekatrin Steinhoff/Marlis Buchmann, S. 2091-2113.

Solga, Heike (2015): 'A Fault Confessed is Half Redressed'. Review Essay on Low-achieving School Leavers' Access to Apprenticeships and Their Returns to Participation in Prevocational Training Measures. WZB Discussion Paper SP I 2015-501. Berlin: WZB.