Applying for the Bildungsgutschein
If you are registered as unemployed in Germany, you may be eligible for a Bildungsgutschein; that is, a "voucher" that you can spend on a course or qualification that will boost your chances in the job market. This is particularly advantageous if you work in tech, where an extra certificate can give you a lot more credibility even if you don't have practical work experience in a particular area.
I first heard about Bildungsgutscheine in 2019, when exploring options for learning to code. Bootcamps had been in vogue for a while. A few of the Berlin-based ones had advertisements everywhere, very excitedly telling prospective students that if they were unemployed, they could do the courses — worth an average of €7,000 at that point — for free.
Well, it isn't really that simple, of course. For one thing, no matter what kind of course you do, you'd better get prepared to mediate between the course provider and the Agentur für Arbeit (AfA). And if you don't speak German, I imagine it's even harder, because even in Berlin, that will be the language of the non-bootcamp courses (and if you're already a developer, you probably won't want to do a bootcamp, unless you have a view to switching into something else, like data science). That's why I decided to document my process.
After several months of unemployment, getting a job had become a struggle. Overall, it was abundantly clear to me that I needed an extra qualification to stand out, especially as someone who not only doesn't have a computer science degree. The feedback I was most often getting from rejections was that they picked someone with more experience.
Looking at my CV and comparing it to the requirements listed on most backend job postings, I was lacking some sort of cloud certification. Although many companies work with Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform, and probably some other lesser-known cloud providers, I decided to focus on Amazon Web Services (AWS) as I'd already had some experience with it before. Furthermore, this would open doors to other roles for me if I decided to do so, such as DevOps Engineer, Cloud Engineer — or even a non-engineering role calling for expertise in AWS.
So, I was already able to get an idea of the AWS courses available in Berlin by searching the official portal. It's important to filter by whether they can be covered by a Bildungsgutschein. You can also look for courses that have a particular duration, among other criteria.
Asking for a Bildungsgutschein
I messaged my case worker at the AfA telling him about my situation, and he offered me an appointment for the following week. At the appointment, I went over everything again, and he was very open to me getting a Bildungsgutschein. I don't know whether I spoke particularly convincingly, or if I am just lucky to get a nice case worker — your mileage may vary. You need a story about how this course will help your career. It doesn't have to be long or complex. But mainly: don't act entitled. Don't expect to be able to just walk into their office, say you want them to fund a course for you, and have them enthusiastically agree.
Talking to course providers
The next step will be to contact course providers — usually further education colleges — and let them know you're interested in a particular course. Information on this will be on each course page in the search portal. The college I contacted offered two AWS courses that I was interested in: Cloud Practitioner and Solutions Architect. I booked a consultation with them.
I'd actually initially applied for Cloud Practitioner, presuming I needed a "foundational" certificate in order to do other certificates in the future, but apparently that's not the case. I was advised that for a developer with some AWS experience, that course is too superficial, and I would be better off going for a more practical one — so, Solutions Architect.
A few days after our appointment, the college sent me a Bildungsangebot via email. This is a non-binding offer with key information like what the course entails, when it would start, and, obviously, how much it costs. I then forwarded that to the AfA, repeating what I had told my case worker about how this would help me get a job, and crossed my fingers.
Filling out forms
Around a week later, I received a letter from the AfA with the Bildungsgutschein itself. Hooray! But the process was far from over. There were also several papers to fill out, some of which had questions that were a bit confusing.
If you are a regular unemployed person and don't have any special social arrangements, you can probably answer "no" to most of the questions on the Fragebogen zur Förderung der Teilnahme an einer beruflichen Weiterbildungsmaßnahme. If you don't have children, you can also leave that part blank. Since I was going to do my course from home (and actually, the college itself was in walking distance of where I lived), I didn't have to fill in that part, either.
Then there is the Ausfertigung des Maßnahmeträgers. This confirms your participation and needs to be filled out, signed, and stamped by your course provider and sent to the AfA with the form.
There will also be two copies of the Bildungsgutschein: one is for you to keep, the other has a part that needs to be signed and sent off with the other stuff to the AfA.
A spanner in the works!
The problem is that the Ausfertigung des Maßnahmeträgers needs to be handled by someone other than you, which sets you back somewhat.
I emailed my contact at the college, only to get an auto-reply that he was out of office until the end of September. Luckily, he had provided a back-up contact. Oh wait... that person was out of office, too.
I called the college and we made an appointment for me to bring the paper for them to sign in a few days. Great! But that afternoon, they then called me back saying they needed to postpone the appointment because they needed to "discuss matters internally". Having been rejected from the final stages of a job interview process just the day before — the position had been frozen because they, too, needed to "discuss matters internally" — I started to panic. Especially since the new appointment was going to be two weeks later than the original one, and two weeks before the course was due to begin.
It's all rather tedious, but to cut a long story short, there were further miscommunications that are inevitable when you're counting on two institutions that don't talk to each other. At one point, I received a letter that seemed to indicate that I wasn't going to be able to do the course because my Bildungsgutschein apparently wasn't valid... but actually, it was because the AfA was lacking a piece of information from the college.
In the end it did get sorted out. But because there wasn't much time left before the course, and also because I got sick with COVID, I started it with a bit of a bitter, stressed feeling, which wasn't ideal. At least it was a 100% remote course.
My advice, as with anything in Germany, is to get everything in writing: in this case, confirmation that the course was still going to go ahead and be paid for as planned, despite the admin discrepancies that had nothing to do with me.
My other piece of advice: if you decide to look for a course and apply for a Bildungsgutschein, try to pick a start date in at least 6 weeks' time in order to allow for all this stuff. Hopefully, it will all go much smoother for you...