Working for nothing in the middle of nowhere might not seem the most promising start to a career.

Trudging from village to village, chasing one-off jobs and spending the occasional night by the roadside in the forest - few would fancy it if they had the option of a paid job in western Europe. But three young Germans disagree. Meet Tony, Marcel and Vladimir - a band of vagabond builders roaming Siberia in search of professional glory.

"We travel very light: some tools, overalls and a sleeping bag," says Vladimir, a recent graduate from a German construction college. He and his two friends belong to the rare breed of students who still pay homage to a harsh medieval tradition which they hope will help them stand out in the crowd, Russia's NTV television said.

The 'tradition'

According to the tradition, every novice in the German construction trade should spend three years gaining experience in a foreign country, toiling away for only food and shelter. The young workers are prohibited from marrying, having children or going within 30 miles of their home. Unsurprisingly, fewer than 2% of students take up the option these days.

But those who do, like this trio, hope to impress employers back home with their endurance - and with the endorsements from their foreign customers. The tradition remains silent on the required degree of deprivations in the host country, so southern France would do just as well as Russia's frozen Siberian hinterland.

But for Vladimir, whose parents emigrated to Germany from Siberia, the choice of the destination was obvious. Tony and Marcel, for their part, were seduced by tales of cosy Siberian log houses and "the mysterious Russian soul".

Tough enough

For the village of Novinki, the Omsk region, 1,300 miles east of Moscow, the arrival of the German workers has been a positive boon, the NTV report said. So impressed was the trio's first customer, a local farmer, with their craftsmanship that orders were soon coming in from all over the neighbourhood. "It is obvious how good their work is," says farmer Andrei Lorish. "This is not the way things are done over here. Our people work quickly but not accurately."

And such words of praise are exactly what the trio are after - each customer's comment is diligently put into a special diary. Testimonials by foreigners are especially prized back home, says Tony. Marcel, however, has been less than impressed by what he saw in Siberia. "I had no idea that people here drink so much vodka, even young people, and that nobody works here. It's terrible," he told NTV.

But adverse local conditions could be just what Marcel and his friends need as an excuse for not going through with another ancient test of toughness - having one's earlobe pierced with a builder's nail.