A unique project matches up vocational students with retired tradespeople in a small German town. The program helps to ease students into working life and expand their range of training options.
Dr. Wolfgang Strotmann recently wrote about the project in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships (March 7, 2012).
To learn more, AHB caught up with Dr. Strotmann, a professor at the University of Osnabrück in Germany.
Ruth Dempsey: This is an exciting project. How did it get started?
Wolfgang Strotmann: Staff at the August-Claas-School in Harsewinkel had been working for some time to improve their vocational program. They wanted to strengthen courses in the practical occupational fields.
The school acquired additional space by building a workshop at the site of a former nursery located less than two kilometers from the school. The new venue was a good size, and the former greenhouse had optimal lighting and high ceilings ideal for industrial and technical training.
But the school found there was a lack of skilled instructors in many of the trades, ranging from interior building to automobile technology to roofing to carpentry.
The challenge was to find specialized personnel quickly and on a limited budget!
RD: How did you attract retirees?
WS: It was slow going, initially. First, organizers approached former workers of the Claas Company, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery. With 2,500 workers, the company is the biggest employer in Harsewinkel, and it has an active pensioners club.
The school also used its contacts to reach former tradespeople in the town. The project caught the attention of one well-known retiree in the community. And one of the students recruited his grandfather. Gradually, news of the project spread among the pensioners.
Eventually, the organizers attracted a group of specialists with 40 or 50 years of experience.
RD: So the teachers and retirees met to get things underway.
WS: That’s right. The pensioner contacted the teacher and arranged a personal meeting. The approach worked well because it gave the teacher a chance to show the tradesperson the factory work floor and provided an opportunity to get to know one another.
Following on the meeting, the teacher acted as the regular contact person for the retiree. This arrangement is essential for close cooperation.
RD: The project launched with 10 pensioners.
WS: Yes, the technology teachers and tradespeople met regularly. They organized a number of work projects and established workgroups in a wide range of fields:
- gardening and landscaping
- drywall installation
- metal processing
- bicycle mechanics
- building construction
- warehouse logistics
- automobile technology
- commercial practice (bookkeeping, distribution, personnel management), and
RD: How did young and old hit it off?
WS: This was a concern, initially. How would young students and conservative retirees mesh? But we needn’t have worried. They hit it off right away. The youngsters welcomed the pensioners as experts in their trades.
RD: What about the teachers?
WS: Schools are not structured to work in this manner, so the teachers had to adapt to a new role. For the first few teaching units, the students worked solely with their subject teacher. Later, the retiree was brought in as an expert to help the group achieve its goals.
The teachers also did a lot of the behind-the scenes organizing, fundraising and so on.
RD: Sounds like the project was a success . . .
WS: It was huge success. A win-win!
The students gained competency in the various trades and grew both personally and professionally.
The pensioners felt needed. They expanded their social network by meeting other pensioners, and they grew in their understanding and appreciation of the younger generation.
And the teachers broadened their professional horizons by teaming up with seasoned experts. They also got new insights into the vocational abilities of their students.
RD: The community was wonderfully responsive . . .
WS: The community provided broad support for the project. For example, they covered a share of the rent for the nursery and helped with heating costs. Several businesses donated materials. Monies from birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas gifts were directed to the project.
Also, many community organizations asked various workgroups to do work for them. For example, one group built a complete wood frame house and another made several church benches. One organization placed an order for a metal barbecue grill, and another workgroup was charged with the repair and lease of the Christmas-market huts.
These successes inspired firms and various members of the community to support the different projects.
RD: Your study looked at conditions that facilitate intergenerational projects. What did you learn?
WS: At the school level, the secret is to begin small. Organization is critical. So, a top-notch organizational team is required. Set clear tasks. Don’t think too much – just do it!
More broadly, there is a need to develop educational policy to support intergenerational projects at the school level. Also, organizational strategies to facilitate intergenerational learning need to be integrated into the teacher education program. The projects also require financial support.
RD: This project has gained wide applause. It even took third place in the "Deutscher Lehrepreis" (German Teacher’s Award) in 2010. What do you see as some of the benefits?
WS: The project demonstrates what is possible for students. It shows that they are capable of doing high-quality work.
It highlights how community members can contribute to the school curriculum in a very positive way.
And, it illustrates the potential of an intergenerational approach in helping students transition to working life.
RD: What’s next?
WS: I would like to see vocational projects expanded to other fields of activity such as hairdressing, precision instruments, mechanics and upholstery.
More generally, it would be nice to see working groups that spanned the generations: kindergarten children, students from the different grade levels, adults and seniors.
Clearly, intergenerational projects offer a host of possibilities for schools and communities. I expect they will become more widespread in the future.