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International technical communication.

Professional Education of Technical Writers

in Germany

There is no doubt that in the U.S. the degree of public recognition of technical writing and, in a wider sense, technical communication as a profession is mainly due to the efforts of STC, which had its 40th Annual Conference last year. tekom (the acronym for "Gesellschaft fur technische Kommunikation e. V."), STC's German counterpart, also strives for greater recognition of its members, improved working conditions, and higher salaries. tekom tries to achieve that and more by initiating diverse PR activities and by improving the conditions for professional education.

The present report describes the educational situation of technical writers m Germany. Although the situation for professional and continuing education is far from perfect, the progress achieved since the foundation of tekom in 1978 is remarkable. This article describes the main features of the present situation and shows that professional education in Germany is still highly unstable.

To better understand the subject, the reader might appreciate some basic knowledge about the German system of professional education. If you know it already, you may skip the next section.

Essential Features of the German Educational

System

For the sake of clarity and brevity, the complicated structure of the German educational system is reduced here through some degree of simplification. Within our context it will suffice to know the following:

Every Federal State ("Bundesland") within the Federal Republic of Germany is sovereign in cultural affairs; that is, every State has its own educational system; a national system of mutual consultation provides a minimal consensus between States ("Lander").

In Germany, the vast majority of educational institutions -- including those dedicated to professional education -- are public, belonging to and being paid for by the respective Federal States.

In Germany, professional careers may be roughly divided into four categories: a lower and a higher professional career, an academic career, and a career by retraining ("Umschulung"). The first three categories are the main roads, with public educational institutions playing a major role. Only the fourth road involves mainly private educational institutions.

Lower professional careers begin after students leave the elementary school ("Hauptschule"). An apprenticeship, usually lasting three years, is carried out in a Dual System, that is a combination of in-service training ("Lehre") and a specific kind of a public professional high school ("Berufsschule"), with the apprentice typically moving into the sales field or some trade.

Higher professional careers start after a combination of 13 years of schooling (e.g., "Realschule" plus an apprenticeship) by studying at a "Fachhochschule" (professional college), with graduation after three years, e.g., as a designer or engineer.

Academic careers start after 13 years of school, too, but on a higher level ("Gynmasium") and by studying at a university, with graduation after four or more years, e.g., as a teacher, lawyer, or physician.

There is a small minority of professions for which no clear concept of professional education exists, a good example being journalism. The journalist might have learned his/her job by retraining ("Umschulung") after having worked in another profession for some years. Other ways to become such a professional might include either

Two or three years of in-service training, or

Two to four years of study ("Fachhochschule" or

university).

The Data

In describing the actual situation for professional education of technical writers in Germany, I refer mainly to data collected during two surveys I initiated in 1991/92 as a member of the tekom Board responsible for Professional and Continuing Education. Both surveys were performed as structured telephone interviews.

Both surveys served the same general purpose, namely, to present an overview of the actual educational situation in order to allow for an accurate estimate of its future development and tekom's possibilities for influencing it.

The first survey included 21 private institutions, this number covering almost the entire population at that time. The second survey considered 18 professional schools "Fachhochschulen"), universities, and research institutions belonging to some of those almost 400 State universities and research centers in Germany, where teaching or research on technical communication could make sense. The sample is biased in the sense that only those institutions were included that -- by contacting tekom during the years 1990 to 1992 -- had shown some interest in Technical Communication as a profession.

Tekom's Role

Before the foundation of tekom, no kind of formal professional education for technical writers existed in Germany. Part-time and full-time writers learned their profession exclusively through training on the job. This form of training is a bit surprising because Germany has a long tradition as a highly technologically oriented country with an economy depending on the export of technological products to an essential degree.

With tekom's foundation in 1978, German professionals working in technical communication for the first time got a chance to advance their professional status by improving their professional competence. The society started with seven founding members in 1978 and had at the end of 1993 about 2,000 members; tekom became within only 15 years Europe's biggest national society for technical communication. The rapid growth of membership shows that tekom is meeting its member's needs quite successfully.

Some of such success is due to developing and applying several tools that helped to define individual solutions for different systems of professional and continuing education of technical writers and related professions.

First of all, in collaboration with the Federal Employment Development Agency ("Bundesanstalt fur Arbeit"), tekom developed a thorough job description of the profession of technical writers. This description, revised in 1994, served as base for developing a curricular framework adaptable to different educational settings (institutional context, cognitive preconditions of students, and intended professional specialization). On the basis of these and some other tools, private and official educational institutions got the curricular support and advice they needed to establish educational programs in technical communication.

Through tekom, new possibilities for efficient and effective information exchange among professionals have emerged, mainly through the biannual tekom Conferences and the tekom-Nachrichten, the equivalent to STC's magazine Technical Communication. For example, through tekom-Nachrichten, for the first time advertising for the well-defined target group of technical communicators became possible; this not only helped increase the number of seminars offered, but generated competition, thus increasing the average quality of such seminars.

The next three sections discuss the main directions supported by tekom to improve or to achieve professionalism in technical writing: continuing training, retraining, and formal studies.

The Role of Continuing Education

Improving knowledge and skill through continuing education serves either to improve one's performance in the professional field, or to expand one's field of action beyond the profession. Since the foundation of tekom, both directions are the object of increasing attention.

Details In 1994, most of those beginning their careers as technical writers did it by training on the job. Those willing to improve their knowledge and their skills for the present job may either study specialized literature or participate in seminars lasting from one day to one week.

tekom promotes both kinds of activities in several ways. tekom-Nachrichten publishes bibliographies and comments on special literature for technical communicators. tekom annually organizes seminars inviting its teaching members to perform as trainers. And, finally, a brochure describing the seminar offerings is revised regularly.

The second interpretation of continuing education expanding the field of action beyond the actual job is still in an exploratory stage. Some private institutions try to offer either direct courses (DIHT, an acronym for "Deutscher Industrie- und Handels-Tag") or correspondence courses ("Axel-Andersson-Akademie") in order to qualify people actually working in professions requiring lower qualifications to become some sort of "technical writer assistant."

Comment. No "technical writer-assistant" can replace the technical writer proper. The question remains whether more formal methods of education for technical writers are really necessary. Indeed, there are hints that some professionals would like a nice academic title acquired by participating in continuing education while looking with some suspicion at those having achieved the status of professionals by formal academic study.

For those who started their job the hard way, continuing education is the only way to keep pace with technological and professional development. However, sticking to the traditional career of technical writer training on the job plus continuing education means that the image, the professional status, the material working conditions, the salary, and the chances for promotion will not move far in the desired direction.

Within industry and commerce, only a qualified, formal professional education warrants job stability, an adequate professional status, etc.

The Role of Retraining

Thus, shortly after tekom's foundation, some private educational institutions began offering formal education for future technical writers through retraining, their target groups being composed mainly of unemployed persons with widely differing professional backgrounds, and of students who interrupted their studies.

If a retraining program meets the requirements defined by a Law for the job Market Development (Arbeitsmarktforderungsgesetz), the local Employment Development Office ("Arbeitsamt") will pay the training fees of $13,500 to $15,000 per trainee per year for a program usually lasting from 15 to 18 months. Because the formalities are a bit complicated, only institutions with prior experience entered the field, their experience due either to retraining activities in other professional areas, or to already having offered courses on individual subjects belonging to the syllabus of technical writing (in the sense of continuing education).

Details. The number of institutions offering retraining almost doubled immediately after the Reunification of East and West Germany. At the time of our survey, the number was already declining again. Only 12 of those 21 institutions with the intention offering retraining really did so. Only 8 of those 12 were sure to continue after the end of their present course.

Because of the general problems in the German economy after and partially as consequence of the Reunification, the Federal Employment Development Administration ("Bundesanstalt fur Arbeit") canceled many retraining programs of all kinds; others survived only by reducing the training period from 18 to 12 months.

Comment. From our data we can deduce that during the last five years, until the end of 1993, about 60 courses took place preparing about 900 formally educated technical writers for the job market; almost all of them got a suitable job.

Although retraining was and still is the most successful method for getting formally educated technical writers, the potential elasticity of private institutions to adapt the supply of technical writers to the actual demand of the job market works within very narrow margins, as defined by the German economy.

The Role of Formal Studies

In comparison to the fast, positive (and negative) growth of private initiatives, the German universities and "Fachhochschulen" (professional colleges) still are rather reluctant to adopt programs aimed at a partial or complete formal professional education of technical writers.

Details. Most institutions surveyed either offer some regular courses that might be considered as modules of a formal study of technical communication, or they perform some related research.

There is only one "Fachhochschule" (in the city of Hannover) offering a full-time course whose graduates specializing in documenting computer software and hardware will acquire the title of "Diplom-Technik-Redakteur" (hard to translate, does not exist in the United States. Could be defined as graduated technical editor).

There are two "Fachhochschulen" (in Darmstadt, formerly West and Leipzig, formerly East Germany) and two universities (Berlin and Tubingen) where it is possible to graduate with technical communication as minor subject.

Other comparable institutions intend to offer either possibility, or a two-year program of postgraduate studies.

Comment. In German Universities and "Fachhochschulen," creative ideas for installing innovative studies originate in individual members within those institutions. After having developed a curricular concept, this individual has to persuade the department or faculty, then the whole educational institution, and finally, the responsible Ministry for Research and Development of the Federal State in question. Besides the almost impossible task of proving that the job market needs a certain number of professionals with a specific qualification, there are many more obstacles between the origin of an idea and its realization; thus it is not surprising that this process required about five years in Hannover. Sometimes, peculiar circumstances won't let you succeed even after nine years of such efforts, as in my case at the University of Paderborn.

The growing importance of high-quality technical communication on the national (German) level as well as on the individual level requires a continuous supply of adequately qualified professionals capable of adapting to new professional challenges. To achieve this goal, tekom has to consider three strategic aspects:

* First, up to now, developing technical writing education has been dictated by the exigencies of technological progress in a more or less unilateral fashion. To achieve a more interactive role during future innovation, technical communication as a discipline should be able to offer contributions of its own. This will only be possible if technical communication, as a growing area for many professional occupations, begins being considered as a broad field for intensive interdisciplinary research. This seems to be the core idea of many recent STC publications.

* Second, to compensate for the low flexibility of public educational institutions attempting to match the supply of professionals to the demands of the job market, it might be wise to expand narrow curricula meant only for technical writing to include the wider horizon of the concept of technical communication.

* Third, the expansion of the European Common Market and the growing linkage between different national economies require more and more consideration of international aspects of technical communication.

With this strategic background, tekom should continue to encourage all kinds of initiatives within universities and "Fachhochschulen," improving chances for the partial or full formal education of technical communicators. That encouragement should include possibilities of performing research in order to improve the knowledge base for technical communicators and thus the potential increase in quality of technical communication in our modem world. These convictions seem to meet those held by STC.

Summary

For Germany, therefore, there are several more or less realistic approaches to get better technical writers and thus improved technical documentation conforming to contemporary demands of the industry.

Continuing education, on the one hand, is a necessary way to improve the knowledge and skills of those having learned their profession through training on the job. On the other hand, this method of access to technical communication as a profession is going to be more and more outdated because of socio-monomic and technological pressures.

First attempts are under way to develop a new profession called "technical writer-assistant," those trained through continuing education for high level craftsmanship or trade (e.g., technicians). This kind of systematic training will not produce technical writers proper: The gap between the initial and the desired level of education might be too difficult to bridge by this training method.

During the last 10 years private educational institutions were the most successful organizations offering formal education for technical writers by retraining unemployed people, most of them having some academic background. Both of its properties -- the structural instability and the unreliable quality of retraining offered by private educational institutions -- do not favor this kind of career.

Because of the properties of the German educational system, "Fachhochschulen" and universities unfortunately still play only a minor role in producing professional technical communicators. The quickly changing world of technology asks for a broad formal training supported by educational institutions able to perform adequate research and apply its results.

tekom, although still (and even sometimes behaving like) a teenager in comparison to the STC, shares the conviction that the formal professional education of technical communicators should increasingly be attached to institutions doing active research in that field.

Michael Krause is a psychologist; in 1970 he received his Ph.D. in Salzburg. In 1971 he became a member of the University of Paderborn (Germany). After spending the first ten years as research fellow at an attached Research Center dedicated to Programmed Teaching, he now mainly teaches cognitive aspects of psychology. In 1985, when collaborating with industry for the first time, he got deeply involved in technical communication and the education of its professionals. In 1987 he became member of tekom, the German Society for Technical Communication. As a member of the tekom board from 1990 to 1992, he was responsible for the Department for Professional and Continuing Education. In 1993, he became member of the STC, too.
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Author:Klein, Fred
Publication:Technical Communication
Date:Feb 1, 1995
Words:2707
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