"Our trainees should use the opportunities they are given here"
In addition to providing facilities for studies and research, the University of Münster offers apprenticeships and vocational training in 19 different occupations – from gardener to IT systems technician. One example of this vocational training is that for chemical laboratory assistants at the Institute of Organic Chemistry, where the two people responsible for this training are Karin Hassels (since 2009) and Peter Eggert (since 2001). Kathrin Nolte spoke with the two instructors about educational requirements and about the development away from practical working towards a greater demand for specialist knowledge.
What are your duties as instructors at the Institute of Organic Chemistry?
Karin Hassels: The most important job we have as instructors at our institute is to develop and strengthen our trainees’ competences. In addition to this, we go by the stipulations laid down in the general training curriculum, in order to prepare for them for their final exams and their future working life as best we can. Here, our trainees not only have the time they need for their training, but they also have the opportunity, for example, to take a first look at a chemistry degree course through being supervised for lectures demonstrating chemistry experiments. We collaborate with a variety of departments and neighbouring institutes, and this enables us to cover the entire spectrum of the vocational training a chemical lab assistant undertakes.
Peter Eggert: I can only agree with all that, but would like to add that – as instructors, and beyond the actual training itself – we can often offer help and advice if our trainees have any worries or problems.
What is your experience of working with trainees?
Hassels: Our trainees come from different types of school, which means that they come to us with different types of knowledge and skills. In mathematics and in the natural sciences, the knowledge they have from school is often very theoretical and has little to do with practical work. Typical mathematical applications such as the rule of three, or drawing up and solving simple equations – things which are needed in everyday work in the lab – were often taught during the first few years at secondary school and we have to refresh that knowledge. In practical work in chemistry lessons, all they can do in many cases is use a Bunsen burner. But this is not the fault of the teachers. As a rule, it’s a question of the insufficient budget which schools have for the subject, and that budget has to cover the costs not only of buying chemicals and materials, but also of safety measures and waste disposal.
Eggert: Each trainee has his or her own individual personality – which doesn’t always make daily work in the lab easy, but it’s extremely interesting. There’s none of the established routine that often crops up in other jobs. That’s what makes this job attractive and prevents any boredom arising.
Have the qualifications for new lab trainees changed over the years? What developments have you noticed?
Hassels: If you look at the way the training for chemical lab assistants has developed over the years, you can see one clear trend: there used to be five practical tasks in the final exam, and today there are only two. The amount of purely practical, hands-on skills for lab work have been cut back in favour of what is today the important area of instrumental analysis. This can also be seen quite clearly in the theoretical part of the final exam. Some of the questions in the so-called elective modules – which are another new possibility that companies have to steer the training they offer into a certain specialised direction – have now reached a level such that some undergraduates wouldn’t be able to provide the answers. It’s a pity that what was once very much a practical, hands-on occupation has developed into an activity which calls for very specialised knowledge and – as far as the theoretical part is concerned – knowledge on a very high level. Because actually someone from a Hauptschule (elementary secondary school) can do this training – but, with these increasing demands on trainees, they need to be highly motivated to learn.
Eggert: If you take the grades on a school report as your basis, you would have to say, “No, the qualifications required haven’t changed. But if you take a closer look at some things – for example, the results of our aptitude test – we are a little surprised actually at how often these results turn out to be (to put it diplomatically) not terribly good. Applicants are often not able to provide the correct answers to simple mathematical tasks such as fractions, percentages and rule of three. Or they don’t even try to answer the questions. It’s similar with German language skills. The reports they write are full of spelling mistakes, and how they express themselves leaves much to be desired. Both subjects – maths and German – play an important part in a job such as that of a lab assistant.
What do you, as instructors, attach particular importance to?
Hassels: What’s important for me is that our trainees should feel fine here and integrate well into the team. This aspect plays a very important role for an individual’s personal development and, by extension, for his or her own success. Liking the job and being interested in it are just as important, of course. After all, the trainees have taken the decision to work as lab assistants for the next years of their lives. Other things which trainees shouldn’t neglect are a willingness to learn and a careful and prudent way of working. Social skills, being honest – with other people as well as with oneself – and being helpful are also things which are important not only in the lab. They are a part of overall social competence, which is something we like to promote, and which is useful for everyone throughout their life.
Eggert: Nothing I can add to that.
What do you wish for your trainees?
Hassels: That they seize their opportunities and use them, that they are happy and contented, and that one day they will think of us and will be able to say, “My training was a great time and it prepared me well for my working life. It gave me a lot of opportunities for my further development.” That would make us feel proud.
Eggert: I am also delighted if our trainees recognize and take advantage of the chances we offer them. What more can an instructor wish for if, at the end of their training and having matured in the process, they then pass their exam well? To put it in a nutshell: if our trainees leave us with a smile on their face, and one day come back to visit us with exactly the same smile, then we know that we did wasn’t all bad.
What does a chemical laboratory assistant do?
Chemical laboratory assistants prepare and carry out chemical investigations and series of tests. They analyse substances, separate mixtures and produce chemical substances. They also evaluate the results. They work primarily in research, development and production laboratories in industries such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals, paints and coatings, or foodstuffs. They also work in scientific and medical institutes at universities. Last but not least, they can also be employed in companies engaged in chemical testing or consultancy, or in environmental agencies.